What is poetry anyway?
I hated poetry at school. Mostly because I could become fascinated with a poem, and draw all over it, creating my own ideas about what it was about, and then the teacher would talk. I’d stare at the annotations I’d made wondering how it was that I couldn’t see the rhymes. Why was it that my syllables added up differently each time I counted? And I blamed the poet for not writing more explicitly what they were trying to say.
The silent pursuits of reading and writing are great. I just had a problem with sounds.
Over Christmas, my sister left a couple of poetry books lying in the living room. She is very much fond of spoken word poetry. I started reading and looked and saw that this poetry, which followed no obvious pattern, which sometimes makes less sense than my own diary, didn’t resemble the poetry I remembered from school.
And I didn’t like it. Or rather, I liked it, because it was soppy at times, emotional and poignant, but I didn’t regard it as poetry. It was more like the rubbish that I would like to tweet as my heart breaks, but hopefully judge it wiser not to. Of course, I love what I write, as I write it in that emotional splurge of a moment, and to me it feels real. Very real. Genius in fact. But I just don’t imagine anyone else quite understanding without a heart transplant.
Literature and Mental Health
So how come, that now, today, I’m thinking and writing about poetry? Well it comes down to my decision to do a free online course called Literature and Mental Health. There is little logic to how I chose what to study next. I have done multiple courses in the art and archaeology of Ancient Egypt which I picked because the course title began with an A. The gift of a wonderful curiosity.
But I read a lot. And I read a lot about how we think about ourselves, and how we as people might have brighter happier thoughts. So maybe it does make sense.
I read when I’m heartbroken. Specifically, books that can educate me in such a way as the pain I weep is logically and rationally assessed, a strategy put in place, and understanding found. I swear off repeating the same stupid, stupid mistakes.
Seeing a course on literature and mental health started me wondering whether there was an alternative, additional way to use reading to get me from numbness or fear back into that realm of bright happy thoughts. (Not in any way negating the success of my aggressive self-help reading strategy. For me at least, such a strategy is more effective than chocolate.)
Mindfulness, meditation, taking a walk or reading poetry
Week one, and Stephen Fry is talking about how ‘great poetry isn’t a tantrum’ which I get. And prosodics and enjambments and ottava, which I got momentarily, but have now forgotten.
Poetry can do something special to the mind. It can slow you down, pull you towards specific images: the calm of nature or the soothing familiarity of something as ridiculous as a child’s ball game or the shipping forecast. A bit like meditation. Except in poetry you have sounds and ink and with meditation you have that continuous inhale and exhale.
I’d never thought about poetry like this. For me, it’s always felt combative. As if the poet was challenging me to see why it’s great. Unsurprisingly, I only like a few poems. Normally only ones about hedgehogs.
Yet many other people have strong, positive experiences of poetry. So I’m slowly letting these uncountable syllables and mysterious rhymes into my life.
So, my question today, as a person ignorant to the world’s vast array of poetry, is whose poetry do you like?