Friday, February 1, 2008

Why I Suddenly Love Poetry

By Stuart Sharp

After a bit of a clear out, my bookshelves are now largely empty of the detritus I’ve collected over the years. For the first time in I don’t know how long, there is very little on them that I haven’t read fairly recently. It’s funny how many things seem like the greatest books in the world when you first read them, then fade into being half remembered space fillers, and finally reach the stage where you can hardly remember why you read them at all.

It’s not a complete overhaul. A quick trawl through what remains reveals a battered copy of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book Of Five Rings, an obscure sourcebook on Ancient Egypt (when was I ever interested in Ancient Egypt?) and a copy of One Hit Wonderland by comedian Tony Hawks (Who recently answered questions on Mastermind about his skateboarding namesake). When did I buy them? More to the point, why did I buy them? They don’t seem much like the sort of things I’m reading at the moment. Actually, I’m not sure I even fully read the last of them, since it acquired a bookmark about half way through before falling foul of my tendency to forget where I left books. The books I was probably enjoying a year or two ago are now no more than curiosities. I don’t particularly feel like re-reading them.

But it works the other way too. That’s why my bookshelves are currently full of books of poetry.

To set this into context, up until less than a year ago, I didn’t much like poetry. That is to say I didn’t like the idea of poetry; I hadn’t really read enough to make a proper decision on it. In particular, I didn’t like the idea of the poetry of Philip Larkin. That may seem a little specific, but you have to remember that, in Hull, any building not named after William Wilberforce is probably going to be named after the city’s most famous poet. Between researching in the library where he worked and spending most of my degree in a university building bearing his name, the part of me that dislikes being told what I ought to read was making it clear that we were not going to be reading his collected works any time soon.

With poetry in general, it didn’t help that my few attempts to dip a toe into the waters of verse ran into quite a lot of bad free poetry. Done well, it can be powerful, but it’s risky stuff. Without metre or rhyme to hold the poem together, the poet has nowhere to hide if they run out of genius half way through. And too many of those I read did.

So what changed? Why are my shelves now bursting with Blake, Milton, Charles Murray and Alan Ross? More importantly, what does this have to do with anybody else? Why should you care that I have managed to overcome this strange aversion?

One reason is that I suspect many of those reading this will have their own irrational dislikes, whole areas of fiction, non-fiction or poetry walled off on the basis of a few forays into crime, or horror, or family drama. Another is that most of us will know people whose reading habits amount to not doing so at all, having decided that books are boring, overly demanding and out of date. So, at the risk of sounding like a twelve-step program for recovering non-readers…

First, I made a decision that I was going to at least try and like poetry. This was mostly based on a sudden urge to write the stuff. Apparently it’s not uncommon. It’s said that more people in the UK write poetry in some form than buy it. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the mental image of a country being a net exporter of verse.

Having made that decision, the next stage was to try and find a poet, (just one, it shouldn’t be too hard, should it?) whose work I actually liked. So many to choose from, and all I had to do was read until I found one. Of course, to find that one, I had to wade through another mixture of the weird, the free, the uninteresting and the utterly closed off. This is where the humble library card comes in useful. Not having to buy things is a great incentive to try a wider range of writers.

I found what I was looking for in the work of Sophie Hannah. Modern but using the techniques of poetry to full effect, without them ever being obtrusive, her poetry struck me as simply amazing. It still does. As far as I’m concerned, collections like The Hero and the Girl Next Door and Hotels Like Houses are absolutely essential reading.

From there, the next stage wasn’t, curiously enough, to slowly expand outward, looking for similar things. I read the works of other poets, certainly, but in a trickle in among the things I’d normally read. This wasn’t the point for any kind of total immersion. The next stage, in fact, was to try to find out a little more about poetry. Maybe it’s just me who always wants to know how everything works, but somehow I find that learning what authors/musicians/sportspeople are actually doing makes it easier to appreciate the depth of what they’ve produced.

Which brings us nicely to Stephen Fry. In case word of his work as a writer/presenter/actor/half a dozen other things hasn’t got beyond the shores of Britain, I can only assure people that he’s done considerably more than appear as a psychologist in Bones. The relevant thing here is his book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled, which taught me quite a lot of things about poetry that I dimly remembered from English lessons, and rather more that I’m fairly certain were never mentioned. There are other books on poetry out there, but somehow this is the one that does the most to convey a sense of enjoyment about the stuff.

So I’d found a poet whose work I liked and I’d found out about what makes it work. All that remained was to dive right into the rest of it. I read Spencer and John Donne, secure in the knowledge that if I didn’t like it (I did) I had more modern stuff to return to. I read the work of poets like Brian Patten and Len Murray, knowing that if I didn’t like their free poetry that wasn’t the same thing as not liking poetry. Perhaps because of that, I actually found myself quite liking Patten’s work.

There were coincidences too. It came as news to me that Alan Ross, the author of a number of the cricket books in my collection, is in fact better known to the majority of people as a poet. I found this out after picking up a copy of Death Valley at random in a library, then glancing at the list of the author’s other works to find The Cricketer’s Companion.

But what about Larkin? Did I finally get round to reading his collected poems? Actually yes, but not in Hull. I read them while visiting a friend, about a hundred miles away, in a flash of nostalgia for my ‘beloved’ city. Having done so, it’s hard to believe I put it off for so long, and I’d recommend them to everyone else if that wasn’t what put me off in the first place. But my finally reading Larkin isn’t the important thing here. The important thing is what you’re going to read next, and what it could change about your own reading habits.

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