I have a confession to make. I don’t particularly like poetry. (Please don’t unfollow, close the tab, and never speak to me again, hear me out!) The majority of it I don’t understand. I don’t even understand half the things I write myself, so stitched together they are with rehashed cliches and borrowed phrases. I enjoy listening to it at open mic events not because of the poetry itself, but because of the theatre and the community feel of the events, I enjoy watching people glow as they read the words they are so proud of, I always enjoyed the pint after with friends who were feeling high on the applause more than the event itself. I have a 2:1 degree in English Literature and I couldn’t even start to tell you what makes a good poem, never mind what makes a poem a poem in the first place. I tried to take poetry modules but always felt like the dullest in the seminar, enjoying the mini-lectures on world history as context for the text much more than the poems themselves.
My favourite poem is ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg, it is objectively a good poem, one of the most famous and influential poems of the 20th Century. It is at points a complete mess, you can almost feel Ginsberg daring you to try and analyse it I studied him intensely while writing my dissertation and I cannot image that he wrote this epic poem without any sense of humour and playfulness, however seriously reflective and bleak it becomes, this is a man who reveled in grossness and weaved humourous moments into the most tragic of verses.
I am not afraid to say that I did not discover this poem through a romantic trip to a bookstore where my soul was drawn to the slim volume with the picture of mad Ginsberg with his frizzy beard and glasses on the back. I discovered this poem after watching ‘Kill Your Darlings’ staring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Ginsberg, which was a film I watched just like any other self-respecting Harry Potter fan who wanted to support their teen idol. I didn’t even read the poem for months after watching ‘Kill Your Darlings’, I watched the film adaptation starring James Franco first! ‘O’ the shame of it all, I committed the first deadly sin of a literary fan which is watching the film before reading the book’ – is probably what I should be thinking, it was in fact what I thought for a long time.
I was a talented student in the field of English Literature in High School and Sixth Form, and an average, yet passionate, student in University, and the whole time I thought someone was going to single me out as a fraud (‘this girl doesn’t really like poetry! Ha! Ha! In fact she barely understands it! Ha! Ha!’, is definitely how it would have gone down). I remember on my first day at Sixth Form my English Literature teacher read an extract from the preface of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, I believe she was taking rather a lot of inspiration from Robin Williams’ character in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ who also channeled Whitman as his muse. I remember feeling something in reaction to her reading: Inspiration? Maybe. Happiness? Possibly. Anticipation? Somewhat. Understanding? Not at all.
I had spent the years before entering Sixth Form writing cringe-y tumblr poetry, reading Keats and Yeats, not because I felt inspired by them but because I heard about them in a song by ‘The Smiths’. I read poetry because I felt like I should, it’s what the weird bookish girl who liked to hang out with my friends in the library at lunch times should do. I thought that if I kept pushing on, annotating in the only way I knew how, which was the High School technique of merely translating the poem into prose as a way to tame and understand the text, I would one day understand it. This day is yet to come.
I committed three years of my life to English Literature and have come out the other end just as much in the dark about the whole thing as I have always been, although maybe now I’m less afraid of the dark. Less afraid to admit that (to turn a Smiths’ lyric on its head) ‘there is more to life than books you know, quite a lot more’. I think I understand the power of the communities that have been built around the art form of poetry, the cultural revolutions that have been led by poets, the events that have been marked by powerful poetry, the tear jerking power of the right words spoken at the right time. Maybe poetry isn’t meant to be fully understood, like happiness it just is. And just like happiness when it’s real, when it’s good, you can feel it but you can’t accurately describe it and that doesn’t make it any less real or less good. A good poem is a feeling, an emotion translated into words. The flow of the piece allows that feeling to have a physicality. Rhyme and metre, I think, are not obscene words associated with antique poetry, the kind of stuff I translated in High School, they are tools and when wielded properly they can harness powerful feel. So maybe I do understand poetry a little bit, and that’s good enough for me right now.
I wrote this blog post with every intention of allowing it to stand on it’s own, it felt punchy, well-argued I guess, a bit sprawling in parts but I was feeling the energy of my thoughts as I wrote them out. Then when I came to redraft I realised how much I’d enjoyed writing this piece, and it made me reflect upon the writing I’d been doing for years about poetry. This is the first ‘essay’ on the subject in which I’ve been entirely honest, this is the first time the voice I wrote with was entirely mine, of course, I was influenced by my experiences, but there was no research, no quotes, no rehashed opinions from my teachers and lecturers. I wrote nothing that I did not want to say, I wrote nothing that I thought someone else would want to hear and that was an incredibly freeing feeling. I am proud of this blog post and I can really see my blog is starting to shape up to be the thing I want it to be: entirely mine.