Reading Poetry

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘poetry’? That it’s mostly written by dead white men about things that mean nothing to you in a way that makes them difficult to understand? I’m hoping to persuade you otherwise.

I first felt an inkling of what poetry could do for me at school. We were studying Philip Larkin, and I noticed the pleasure with which our teacher read ‘This Be The Verse’ with that shock word in the first line to describe exactly what our parents do to us. It felt grown-up, it felt naughty, it felt real. Larkin was saying something to me that was very specific – and I felt that I knew what he meant. This to me is what poetry is all about – it wants to communicate something specific to us, something important.

Reading a poem for the first time can be pleasurable – it might speak to us directly, we might get drawn in by a single phrase. But poems really come into their own when we get to know them, move past the small talk. Have you ever watched a film over and over until you know what’s coming next, and the jokes just get funnier? Or known the words to a song so well it seems as if the singer is speaking directly into your heart? This is what it’s like to carry a poem inside you whole.

There are poems that have stayed with me and become a part of how I make sense of the world. When I think of fathers, I think of Adrian Mitchell, and how he takes the hand of his three year old, Beattie, at the top of the stairs. As they descend he ‘. wish(es) silently/ That the stairs were endless.’ Louise Gluck describes a feeling that – ‘.fought like netted fish’ inside her – I know that feeling, and the poem labels it for me. Sometimes when I feel glad to be alive I think of Denise Levertov and her poem ‘Living’, ‘The fire in leaf and grass/ so green it seems/ each summer the last summer’.

Poems can also be taken as medicine. When I am needing to be reassured I read Christopher Logue who urges us to ‘be not too hard for life is short/ And nothing is given to man’. When I want to get closer to a certain type of grief I am feeling, a poem can help me to do this – as Stewart Conn faced a dying, breathless parent, he remembered the orange stains of fish under the ice in his garden pond and wished it was ‘simply a matter of smashing the ice and giving you air.’ He’s known true helplessness, and the more you read this poem the more you know it too.

And here’s the truth of it – poems ARE hard work. If you want a poem to truly inhabit you, to change you, then a quick read won’t do it. Poems demand to be struggled with a little. There are parts of some poems I didn’t understand for years, and the coming of meaning came like a shaft of light. And there are others that I still don’t understand – not completely – but the poem asks me to try, and gives me hints, and sometimes that’s enough. We don’t always understand everything in this world. It’s the trying that matters. I urge you to give poetry a chance – it wants you to listen to it, it has important things to tell you. And above all it wants you to listen to yourself.

All of the poems I’ve quoted above can be found in ‘Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times’ edited by Neil Astley. If you buy one book of poems this year (or ever) make it this one – and find a poem in it, any poem that catches a sliver of your interest on first reading. Read it twice every day for a week – first in your head and then aloud. After you’ve done this the poem will be a part of you, whether you want it to be or not. It will become alive.

Writing Poetry

I’ve been writing poetry for over 10 years now. I’ve spent more money on it that I’ve made, I’ve written hundreds of poems that have ended up in the bin, and I still feel like I am the beginning of my apprenticeship. So why do I continue to write? What keeps me going? how can I persuade you that writing is worth it?

What I love most about writing is the sheer pleasure of putting words together. There is nothing like fiddling around with a phrase until suddenly it rings like a bell – and says exactly what you’ve been trying to say. When Ted Hughes describes the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” it’s not just the meaning of the words that strike us, but the sound of them. Say them aloud and you’ll see what I mean. Swap smell for stink and the whole thing collapses.

Sometimes it’s a single word that makes a line sing. Mary Oliver’s stars “burn through the sheets of clouds” – they’re not just showing, we can feel the heat. And sometimes the words are all simple every-day words, but when you put them together in a certain order they become something magical. David Constantine leaves us in one of his poems with “Sleep. Do not let go my hand.”

As well as the joy of playing with language, I also love the fact that being a poet helps me to pay attention to the world around me. Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she’s right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their “by-products”, or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry, and more importantly, being a poet, keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don’t find is that writing is cathartic – that it helps me to “off-load” my emotions. I’m sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I’ve found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn’t make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of “closure”, especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

So how do you start to write? And how do you carry on? If you want to write seriously, I have three pieces of advice to get you started.

Firstly you’ll need plenty of raw materials to fashion into your poems. Your subject can (and must be) anything that interests you. Keeping a journal can give you a useful place to find seeds for poems. I’d also recommend that you buy a small notebook and carry it around with you everywhere. Use it to write down the things you notice that make you think “oh!”. It might be the colour of a flower or the way a man speaks to his son. Don’t forget to read too – read whatever you can – poetry, fiction, factual books.. think of it as feeding your muse.

My second tip would be to start practising the discipline of writing. As well as writing when you feel like it. Put specific time aside to write – at 5 o’clock on Thursdays, or first thing in the morning for ten minutes. Write during those times whether you feel like it or not. If you feel what you’ve written isn’t very good, then learn from it. What didn’t work? How could you improve it next time?

And the third, probably most important bit of advice would be to create a support network around you. Writing can be a lonely business and our muses need both encouragement and feedback so they can learn and carry on writing. There are huge amounts of support available on the internet and I’ve listed some places for you to start below. Nothing beats a face to face workshop group – try a couple locally until you find one that suits you. And make the most of other resources too – “how to write” books, courses, writing coaches and colleagues.

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Copyright © 2006 Fiona Robyn. Used by permission. Fiona Robyn is a published novelistpsychotherapist & creativity coach. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Thing. She blogs at Writing Our Way Home.