Stanzas, freeform, sestina, open and closed form. Do these mean anything to you? They barely registered on my literary radar. As part of my Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University I have had to read several volumes of poetry. This initially provoked feelings of shock, horror, dread and silence (lest my fellow students discover my aversion, and ignorance). Not that I’ve never read any poetry before, I have. When I was a teenager I was fond of Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings, amongst others. But I treated them as the adolescent phase I thought them to be. The saints of the literary world who were too high up to ever really understand, and certainly too lofty to emulate.
But the worst part of all was that we actually had to write a poem. Choke, gasp, gulp.
Terrified of the exercise, I panicked. How do you start? I thought I’d better find out. So, I went to the library and took out The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Ode-Less-Travelled-Unlocking/dp/009179661X). In it he talks about what goes into poetry in such an accessible way as to make you think that anyone can be a poet. He covers the history, various forms of poetry and metre. But the best part of it is that he even teaches you how to write a poem. Which I did.
And guess what?
It was fun!
I reeled off a Shakespearian sonnet about my cat, Cleo, who just so happens to be named after the ancient Greek muse of history and literature. Here’s a photo of the feline version for inspiration, in case you’d like to write your own Ode to Cleo.
And for good measure, here’s her brother, Othello. Isn’t he inspiring?
So I’ve changed my mind. I’ve even written a poem…or two. Not that they are any good, but I’m getting over my metrophobia.
How did I do this and what brought about my recovery? Firstly, having a passionate and inspired professor, who is also a poet, helped (Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke, who you can read about here: http://www.carolynjesscooke.com/ ). As did getting to meet and hear poets read from and discuss their work. One of the poets we heard was Sheri Benning, a Canadian poet from Saskatchewan who read several poems from her collection Thin Moon Psalm (which you can read about here: http://poetryreviews.ca/reviews/thin-moon-psalm-by-sheri-benning/) As I listened to her read, I was transported to the small farm she called home. I could see the light of the moon on an early spring morning and feel the sweat on her father’s back as he worked. But most of all she captured an image, an emotion, revealed a truth and sometimes told a story—which I could relate to. Yet she did so in only a very few words, and with a rhythm to her voice which made her stories into songs. I realised that each and every word must be appreciated for the sum total of its parts, not just its meaning but also its sound. I also realised that the idea of poetry being inaccessible to the layman is nonsense.
For example, there are several spoken word artists such as Hollie McNish (http://holliepoetry.com/poetry-videos/) who writes and performs her poetry without any fancy degrees or literary training, and Kate Tempest (http://www.katetempest.co.uk/about), who grew up in a working class family in South London, began as a teenage rapper and now performs all over the world.
Although I haven’t enjoyed all of the poetry we’ve read, watched and listened to (to appreciate poetry you really do have to hear it), I have certainly enjoyed getting to understand language in a new and different way. Right now we’re reading a book called Wild Geese by American poet Mary Oliver. In her poems she describes nature in almost scientific detail, using it to demonstrate the value of life, love and how amazing and wondrous the world really is. Have a read of her poem ‘Swan’ here: http://maryoliver.beacon.org/publications/monthly/
I’ve also learned to love the tightness and control of poetry. You would think that the narrower the remit for a piece of work, the less creative but I’ve found this to be the opposite. That isn’t to say that a saga like novel isn’t creative—not in the least. But in a poem, you only have a short space to express your thoughts, and forcing yourself to follow the rhyme and rhythm of verse mentally channels you to be choosier about your language and the words you use to express your thoughts, feelings and ideas.
What do you think about poetry? Enjoy it? Not enjoy it? Have you ever tried writing a poem and if so, how did it go? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and maybe even your poems if you felt like sharing them!
And to end, here are a couple of interesting poetry magazines I’ve discovered as a result of the course. Check them out, and see if they change your mind.
Thanks for reading. Until next time!