Friday, October 04, 2013

What poetry does

Three days ago, I wrote a poem. For those who write lots of poems, all the time, the response would probably be - so what? But for me, after completing a first draft, it was a moment of - what took so long? How could I have gone more than a month without writing a single poem? For those who write no poems, the response would probably be - what's the big deal? But it set me thinking about how poetry really is always in my life, even if sometimes it goes off on a holiday for a while.

I've been writing poems since I was 18 years old. I can pinpoint that as my starting year because before then, I had no idea what poetry was. I went to a high school where we studied no poetry AT ALL until 6th form (now equivalent to Year 11). In that year, I only remember two poems we read in class - one about a girl running away through the woods, and one by Robert Graves, but I don't remember which. I do know it was enough to send me off looking for more by him, and discovering "Love is a migraine".

When I first dared to write my own, they were awful. Full of angst and terrible rhyme. I kept the rhyme and later, when I was travelling, I would write funny rhyming poems to make people laugh. I still remember the first poetry class I ever did with Bev Roberts, where I wrote a 4-line free verse poem about autumn (a writing exercise) that she liked, and she told me it had a great metaphor in it.

My response? What's a metaphor?

I laugh now, but at the time it was like having my eyes opened to a magical world of language and images, where I could write whatever I wanted, about whatever I felt or saw or experienced, using language in new and different ways to anything I'd ever done before. It was the world of free verse.

Since then, I've probably written hundreds, if not thousands, of poems. I've written four verse novels. I've written free verse, forms such as villanelles and sestinas, and prose poems. I've taught poetry writing to hundreds of people, from kids to teens to adults.

Still, at the heart of all of this is language and expression and "getting things off my chest and onto the page". Maybe when I don't write much poetry, I'm not aware enough of the world to find a subject. More likely, I don't write much poetry when I'm working hard and deep into a novel, as I am right now. But when I stop and pop my head up, often a poem or two arrives to greet me.

What does poetry do for me? Self-expression, as I said. For every poem that gets reworked and perhaps published, there are usually four more that stay in my notebook. But more importantly, poetry feeds into all of my writing. Reading poetry makes me aware of what language can do, what I can create with language myself. It makes me aware of how important it is to try new things, new ideas, look for new horizons. It reminds me that there are lots of fellow poets out there, doing as I do, because it's important and valuable and meaningful to them, too. Reading their poetry shows me what is possible, and often sparks new ideas for me.

Writing poetry feeds into my prose writing - it flexes my language muscles, provokes me into better imagery, stronger rhythm, more precise word choices. It reminds me of sensory details, of the telling detail, of voice and cadence. Writing poetry reminds me I am a writer. It allows me to focus on a moment, an image, an idea, with complete and utter attention.

This is why I am always going on to people about the importance of poetry to children and teenagers, about how much we lose when we don't have poetry in schools. We don't have to "teach" poetry. That, in unskilled, uninterested hands, can kill poetry forever in a child. But we should at least be reading poems to kids every day or every week, putting poetry on the fiction shelves in libraries instead of away in the 800s, and making good poems available at every opportunity. I'm sure that if I'd been given a whole pile of good contemporary poems to read in high school, it would have made a big difference to me. The few I did get still resonate with me today.
What about you?


Meredith Costain said...

Great post, Sherryl. I agree with so much of this, especially the part about creating opportunities for kids to read and discover poetry wherever possible. Fortunately for me I discovered poetry much earlier than 18 - I grew up in a house where we read and recited poems by AA Milne and Hilaire Belloc. And my wonderful primary school teacher introduced me to lots more every week - often through the pages of the Victorian School Readers. CJ Dennis's A Book for Kids was a favourite.

Sherryl said...

You were lucky, Meredith! I see how little is done in many schools today and it's not even like going back in time, because poetry was part of literature and language in the past. Now, most teachers don't even know where to find good resources!