I read poetry. I write poetry. Poetry nourishes me. This was not always so. Like many people of my age, I was forced into studying poetry for my ‘A’ Level and then happily skipped away from the form as quickly as I could. I did not come back to it for over twenty years.
In my late thirties, I applied to do an MA in creative writing at Sussex University. I went for an interview with Professor Peter Abbs. During this, he asked me what poets I read. I had to admit to not having read any since my late teens. On my way out, I noticed on his door was his designation: Professor of Poetry (or some such title). Despite my woeful ignorance of his speciality, he nevertheless gave me a place on the course.
He led a whole term’s work on poetry through the ages. I found it fascinating, though did begin to wonder, where are all the women? This led me to my own research. I asked at work (I was receptionist at the Women’s Press at the time) and was recommended The Rattle Bag (edited by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes). Despite still being light on women poets, it did turn me onto the joy of anthologies. I suggest an anthology is the place to start for novice readers and writers of poetry.
Reading took me onto writing…
Also, around this time, I fell into a very deep depression and began to have therapy which opened up all sorts of difficult emotions for me. It was a tough period of my life. At first, writing poetry was a way of venting. Then it became a way of exploring. Eventually, it became a way of healing. Discovering new poets who seemed, like me, to be struggling, was part of this journey. Anne Sexton was one of my companions through these difficult years. These days, I find her incredibly hard to read. But doing so, reminds me of the tempestuous waters I navigated.
Another tip for novice writers/reader of poetry: poets and poems will mean different things to you at different times, so if one doesn’t ‘speak’ to you, put it away for another moment or mood.
Once I had got over the venting stage, I wanted to understand more about the craft. The only way to learn the craft is to read, read and read some more. I also found Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem useful. Plus find a community of poetry lovers to share both your reading and writing with. I was most fortunate to discover this when I came to Scarborough. For writing poetry, I needed feedback. However, the great joy was to be able to join with others in reading poetry and learn from others about poets I had not yet heard of. If there is no community near you, find a podcast… there are plenty out there.
More recently, my focus has been on writing novels, but I still keep up reading (and listening to) poetry. Writing less so. I think poetry has filtered into my use of words in prose in what I consider to be a good way. The editor at Constable/Little Brown praised my lyrical language when she offered me a three book deal, so perhaps I am not wrong.
It seems that for many, poetry is a bit high-brow, a bit scary, sometimes unintelligible. All this can be true of poetry. However, you don’t have to search far to find a poem which seems to be written just for you. It could bring you pleasure or recognition or an ‘aha’ moment. It could be a mirror or a window on the world – on your world or on someone else’s. Why not look for a new poem today…? Once you start, I’ll wager, you won’t want to stop.