I am writing this for anyone who doesn’t read poetry very often (or even at all) because I want try and share some of the magic of it with you.* The enjoyment of poetry is often seen as a solitary pursuit, but it can actually be shared with others in many ways. I’ll mention a few of these later on. It is also worth noting that it is not necessary to be a poet yourself in order to appreciate poetry. George Sand said: “He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life”. I find this very comforting because I’ve only written a few poems and I don’t think they were particularly brilliant, but I do genuinely believe you must have (metaphorical) poetry in your soul in order to appreciate the (literal) poetry of others.
As far as I understand it – and believe me I’m no expert! – poetry is not about being difficult, highbrow or obscure, although of course it can be all of these things. It simply involves the expression of the poet’s thoughts and ideas through set verse forms (with the exception of “vers libre”, or “free verse”**). A lot of the time (particularly when we we are reading poems written hundreds of years ago) the poet’s meaning can be hard to grasp, but I think this is probably mainly due to not understanding the context of the poem – i.e. how, why and when it was written.*** If you are put off by the thought of reading poems by people such as Auden, Milton and Shakespeare on the basis that they sound confusing and complicated, it is still possible to gain genuine enjoyment and delight from poems that provide amusement, rather than deep reflective thought or social commentary. Often a poet will simply write a few lines expressing their thoughts or feelings on a particular occasion or event and these can be just as rewarding to read as the more intellectual ones.
When I say “read” a poem, I mean it in two ways. You can read a poem simply by mentally absorbing the words as your eye sees them on the page. Or you can read it aloud – by reciting the poem to yourself (or anyone else who might be listening). I think the latter way probably provides more enjoyment because it allows you to hear, to aurally sense the beauty of the words, the crafting of the verses and the timing of the rhythm in a way that just isn’t possible when it is simply read inside your own head. It may seem embarrassing at first, but I really do believe if you try it a couple of times, you’ll see what I mean.
Although I enjoy reciting poetry, I also love listening to poetry being read to me. If you want to be introduced to a wide range of poems read by some rather lovely voices, Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme is ideal. Voices always sound so much sexier on the radio, I think it’s the intimacy of it, it feels as though they’re speaking directly to you – a wonderful way to experience this particular art form.
Another way of consuming poetry is to talk about it with others. When I was at university in my second year I joined a group called SkyReading which was run by an English Literature student called Ella. I think she intended it to be kind of like a bookgroup, but it ended up more as a poetry group because, as she pointed out, it’s difficult for most people to get round to reading a book within a limited time period of a couple of weeks. So instead she brought a couple of poems every week and we took turns to read them out loud and then talk about them – whether we liked the poem, what we thought it was about, that sort of thing. She removed the title and author from the poems before handing them out so we couldn’t be prejudiced by any previous conceptions about the authors – this worked extremely well and meant that we made more of an effort to experience the poem properly rather than dismissing it too soon. Although this was a (for me, anyway) novel way to experience the verse form, we should remember that poetry is still a very personal and private expression of feelings. Christopher Morley said: “Poetry comes with anger, hunger and dismay; it does not often visit groups of citizens sitting down to be literary together, and would appal them if it did.”
Finally, the easiest and most obvious way to enjoy poetry is simply to read some of it yourself, on your own in your room, on a walk, in the library, anywhere really. The best bit is when you open a book entirely at random and find a poem that perfectly reflects your mood, expressing exactly what you’ve been feeling. Last year I picked up a book of poems by Robert Burns on the 25th January, which is of course Burns Night. It opened at a poem which the author had written on his birthday, 25th January. It was so strange to imagine him strolling through the woods on his morning constitutional before sitting down to write that sonnet on the same day, so many years later, that I happened to be reading it. ****
Speaking of which, learning poetry off by heart is another way of enjoying it – a way of carrying the poem with you wherever you go. Some might say, “but you could take it in a book, or even on your phone, rather than bothering to learn it”. But I think that when you take the time to learn the words of a poem, it somehow becomes a part of you, a part of your soul that will remain with you as long as you live. It makes the poems that you choose to learn that much more special – like the photo of a dearly loved relative or friend that is carried in a locket close to your heart. Apart from anything else, knowing a poem that well means no one can ever take it away from you or stop you from knowing it. Unlike prose, the rhythm of poetry makes it ideally suited for learning and repetition, anyone who has ever had to learn lines of Shakespeare would probably agree with that. *****
I don’t actually know that many poems truly by heart – maybe half a dozen – which is rather shameful seeing as I’ve just written all that bumpf about how great it is to memorise them! But I find it very satisfying to walk along a beach (for example) and recite the words of Sea Fever to myself – it means so much more when the setting matches the words so well.
You can also buy CDs of famous actors and actresses reading poetry to a background of classical music. I haven’t bought any of these yet, mainly because I was worried about the music interfering with the reading of the poem, but I will try it at some point and see what it’s like.
If you want to experience more poetry, you could buy a book of well-known favourites, or download the Poetry app from the App Store if you own an Apple device. The icon is orange, with a picture of a white-winged horse on it. Also, I did a couple of audioboos a while ago which involved me reading some poems, if anyone wants me to do any more I would be happy to do so – it was rather fun. In an act of disgustingly shameless self-promotion I will add that, if you want to listen to them yourself, here is the link: http://audioboo.fm/zany_zigzag
Finally, if you either live in London or happen to be passing through on a visit one day and use the Underground, have a look at the posters inside the trains – often instead of an advert you will find a poem. Most are written by famous poets, but a couple have been penned by young poets who entered and won a competition, two of which I count among my favourites, because they are fresh, original and interesting – reading them is like eating cookies straight out of the oven, all scrummy and delicious. I know that I’ve attracted strange looks from fellow passengers several times because I’ve only noticed part way through the journey that there’s a poem on the wall and have to bend round people and crane my neck in order to be able to read it. I still don’t quite understand why everyone else isn’t doing the same thing – and even if I’ve read the poem before, I still want to read it again, because it was so good the first time. And the second time. And the third time. You get the point. That is another wonderful thing about poetry – it can stand multiple repetitions, and in fact even if you think you know a poem really well, you can read it for the umpteenth time one day and discover some fresh insight within its lines.
If you want to know more about how poems are constructed and written, and also learn how to write your own, you can do no better than Stephen Fry’s marvellous book “The Ode Less Travelled”.
The asterisks above relate to relevant quotes at the end of the blog. I was going to insert them in the main text, but it would have been too messy. This way, you can choose whether or not to read the quotes. I hope you do, because most of them say more in two lines on the subject of poetry than I have in this whole blog. I have, however, chosen to find this inspiring rather than demoralising!
I will leave it to W Somerset Maugham to sum up everything I’ve been trying to say up until this point: “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.”
* “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.” ~ Paul Engle, New York Times, 17 February 1957
** “I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.” ~ Robert Frost
*** “I’ve written some poetry I don’t understand myself.” ~ Carl Sandburg
**** “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” ~ Salvatore Quasimodo
***** “Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe