Saturday, January 28, 2006


I'm not a great reader of poetry. I did the usual stuff at school of course: a couple of pieces from A Child's Garden of Verses in primary school, some of the early Scottish ballads, that Tennyson about the eagle and the azure sky, "Timothy Whatshisname goes to school", a bit of Burns, some unfathomable T.S. Eliot,and and even some Verlaine in secondary school. I also attended and enjoyed readings by Roger McGough, Edwin Muir, and Norman McCaig. I remember buying an anthology of poetry for my French course at university but I can only dredge up a fragment of a single line from one poem by Paul Eluard: "debout sur mes paupières". If forced, I could probably still recite a bit of Burns, but that's about as far as it goes and I could certainly tell you more about the lives of Rimbaud and Verlaine than I could about their writing.
Although I own several books by poets, I tend to settle for their prose writing rather than their poetry. For example, although I find the deceptively smooth poetry of Hugo Williams seductive ("If it doesn't look easy you're not trying hard enough"), I far prefer his similarly suave column in the TLS and bought a collection of that prose writing a few years ago. I have also devoured and regularly reread Kenneth White's travel writing, but his poetry books, some of which I do have, just don't exert the same attraction. I have some incredibly poetic books by Kathleen Jamie and Alistair Reid too, but none of their poetry. The Collected Letters of Larkin sit on my bookshelf and have been read in their (occasionally tedious) entirety, but I don't have any of his poems.
I used to think that poetry held so little attraction for me because of my lack of musicality. Or perhaps I just didn't have enough soul. But, a passage from Ian McEwan's most recent novel, Saturday, suggests a better explanation. The protagonist finds that "even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes:
"Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely , to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like dry stone walling or trout tickling."
The truth is, then, that reading poetry is a skill that simply takes more time and effort than reading most prose. It's not something you can do properly lying in bed, and subscribing to a poetry blog is no magic bullet either, since the very nature of blog-reading means that one scans them quickly for instant reading gratification. Perhaps poetry podcasts are the answer — there is something very attractive in the idea of effortlessly assimilating the words of a poem whispered directly into my ear from my pink i-Pod as the tram whisks me into work. If it's not in bed and it's not in the tram, the alternative for me is reading poetry in the living-room with the repetitive cadences of Dora in the background: Chipeur arrête de chiper, Chipeur arrête de chiper, Chipeur arrête de chiper..


Ms Mac said...

Well, I say "Pfffft!" to poetry.

But then I'm a bit thick, see.

heather said...

And this was made especially for people such as you, Lesley. There is something wonderful in hearing the writer read their own work.

BeefKing said...

I have to say, I think poetry is valuable, indeed necessary, for exactly the reason you mention. Because it isn't like speech, it isn't like prose; it uses words for an altogether different purpose than they normally serve. Poetry stands still with the words, considering their sounds as much as their meanings, and its content examines the spaces between the stories, the impressions and the sensitivites. There's more to a story, or a life, than narrative. Poetry fills in the gaps a little. And because it is so rooted in idea, rather than cold fact, I find that in a phrase poetry can tell us more than a whole page of sentences. It's harder to read, sure. It's harder to write too no doubt. But I sure am glad it's there. I'd hate for the little fox to come and make off with my Rilke books, leaving me chanting after him, "Chipeur arrête de chiper, Chipeur arrête de chiper, Chipeur arrête de chiper..."

Neil said...

Dora The Explorer? Now THAT'S poetry!

Lesley said...

Ms Mac: No, no not thick just "poetically challenged" like me.

Heather: That's a fantastic site. Now, if I could just work out how to download a couple onto my i-Pod.

Beefking: I know exactly what you mean, but it's the leap from the type of effort involved in reading books and blogs to that required for poetry that I find almost impossible.

Neil: Have you been growing a beard?

deborah said...

You shouldn't have any trouble with the following ..........

Money by Richard Armour

That money talks
I won't deny
I heard it once.
It said , 'Goodbye.'

or Hillaire Belloc with Fatigue

I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.

Then you can progress to limericks:

There was a young bard of Japan
Whose limericks never would scan;
When told it was so,
He said: 'Yes, I know,
But I always try and get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.'

Then go on to Haikus, not a great strain on the old grey matter. Wendy Cope can always be relied upon for easy understanding:

Strugnell's Haiku

The cherry blossom
In my neighbour's garden - Oh!
It looks really nice.
The leaves have fallen
And the snow has fallen and
Soon my hair also ...
November evening:
The moon is up, rooks settle,
The pubs are open.

And last but not least from Gavin Ewart


The Irish are great talkers,
persuasive and disarming.
You can say lots and lots
against the Scots -
but at least they're never charming!

Lesley said...

Ah Deborah, I see that you alone have the concentration and application necessary for serious poetry reading :-) I must find out more about this Ewart fellow, he doesn't sound trustworthy to me.

Jonathan said...

You should really try to get hold of a copy of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems. You won't regret it.

I have also just got my hands on a copy of The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry edited by Paul Auster. It is very thick and will, I think, be rather fabulous.