Did school teach you to be afraid of poetry?
As a teenager, I remember feeling like I just wasn’t clever enough to read poetry. I didn’t get how to analyse it in a way that would score exam points. I could barely comprehend that people read this stuff for pleasure. Sat in a classroom, going through line-by-line for rhythm and symbolism, I mostly felt alienated and (I’m sorry) bored.
This wasn’t always the case. As a kid I re-read Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes until I knew every verse of each twisted, retold fairy tale by heart. My friends and I would put on classroom productions where we’d bellow out couplets while transformed into Little Red Riding Hood skinning a pig, or an uppity, entitled Goldilocks breaking and entering.
School and exams sucked the life out of poetry for me. But two experiences in 2009 brought it back. The first was my stumbling upon the BBC series ‘My Life in Verse‘. Through hearing others talk about their very personal, emotional connections to poetry – connections I didn’t realise people I might consider ‘normal’ had – I learned that the pleasure often doesn’t come through the analysis. Reading poetry requires a certain openness that I didn’t know existed. It can show us new ways of piecing things together, pushing the limits of language and feeling towards the sweet spot where these fundamental parts of being human converge. Good poetry can be love or laughter. It can be anger or confusion or a feeling you’re not even sure of yet.
The second came not long after that. At a festival I accidentally wandered into a spoken word gig where the brilliant Salena Godden was performing Imagine if you had to lick it!. This was probably the first time I’d seen poetry performed, and definitely the first time I’d seen it done for laughs. It was hilarious to the point of belly aches. Visceral to the point of nausea. I was transported back to my beloved Dahl dramatisations. I fell in love. (If you have the chance to see Godden live, it’s 100% worth whatever the ticket price is.)
Finding Godden’s work was a gateway into spoken word and to poetry not just about feeling, but politics too (see, for example, the recent Pessimism is for Lightweights). I found British hip hop and artists like Akala. Thanks to YouTube and Spotify, this scene now feels more accessible than ever. Just look at this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. I feel like if I’d had artists like Kate Tempest, Loyle Carner and Stormzy around me at 15, I would have maybe understood that poetry was a broad enough church to let people like me in.
So if I could get a line to 15 year old me, I’d beg her not to shy away from those poetry books. I’d say poetry is really just like any another language, and it has many dialects. To get the most from it requires practice and a good conversation partner to give you the right cues. Go to a poetry reading, find a recording online, or just really take some time to sit down with a poem and read it out loud. Great poets can and will change your life. You just need to let them.
I’d love to hear if you’ve also had a poetry journey, or if you have any poetry or music recommendations!