One of the luxuries of my doctoral studies is the time it gives me to focus on something I’m passionate about: children’s poetry. Every day I write poetry, read poetry and read about poetry – and have to remind myself that this is work. And, of course, because I’m writing and reading so much, I also spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. What I’ve been thinking about this week is the mismatch between the way most children love poetry and the way most adults don’t. Two articles I’ve read have particularly illuminated this.
Firstly, Andrew M. Brown talked in the Telegraph about the ‘tell-tale tingle’ that memorable poetry gives you, a phrase coined by Nabokov, and a state referred to by other poets including John Larkin. His article was inspired by the Cambridge Poetry and Memory Project, a study looking at the effects of memorising poetry.
The second article, by Michael Perry in the Wisconsin State Journal reminds readers that poetry doesn’t have to be “gotten” – just experienced.
And there you have it: the problem I think many people who drift – or run – away from poetry have, is that they don’t ‘get’ it, or perhaps that they’re scared of not getting it.
I grew up loving poetry. My early poetry memories include my mum reading me the poetry of A. A. Milne, R. L. Stevenson. C. J. Dennis and Dr Seuss, among others. I remember the thrill of those tiddly-poms, the sugar-ant roaming, the land of counterpane, and the perfection of Horton being sent home “happy, one-hundred percent”. I relished the word play, the narrative twists, the rhythm, and the social aspect of sharing this joy with my mother and siblings. When I started school, poetry was offered by teachers, in reading and English text books, and was recited for school assemblies. I lapped it up. I think I was in high school when I discovered poetry didn’t have to rhyme, and remember the very physical shiver of delight when I first read William Carlos Williams’ plum poem (yes, I do know its title, but it will forever be the plum poem to me), a poem which later had the same effect on my character Pearl.
But something terrible happened. While I never lost my love of poetry completely, I came to fear it, starting when I studied Literature as a year 11 and 12 subject. I was still able to enjoy the reading of some of the poets and poems we studied – I especially adored T. S. Elliot – but being asked to write analyses of poems – especially in exam situations – terrified me. What if I got it wrong? What if I missed the meaning? Overlooked the clever allusion ot some historical event I’d never heard of? Overlooked a simile/metaphor/personification? Throughout my final years of school, and through my Arts degree, I really dreaded poetry analysis. (One issue was that no one ever explained what it was I needed to DO in a practical criticism half so well as my supervising teacher on my first teaching prac did, a year after a wrote my last one! I sat and listened to him explain to his year eleven students amazed that it was actually so easy.)
Fortunately for me these experiences didn’t turn me right away from poetry – perhaps because that love was so deep ingrained, or perhaps because I didn’t ever stop writing poetry of my own, or perhaps because I’m just stubborn. Still, I suspect that for those who don’t study literature, or education, or writing – in short, people who don’t need to engage with poetry beyond childhood – that fear of not understanding poetry, of not being smart enough, is a deterrent to reading poetry. And that’s sad, because that tingle, that sheer delight of experiencing a well crafted poem is a magic everyone deserves to have.
My point? Don’t be scared of poetry. As Michael Perry says, you don’t have to ‘get’ it. Just read it, listen to it and share it. Find a poem that gives you that frisson of joy that the poetry of your childhood did. Perhaps you could start with revisiting those same poems. And remember, there won’t be an exam, so if you don’t get it, nobody will know.