I didn’t always hate poetry. When I was little, I loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I liked these poems because they were short, and funny, and made each word ‘do a lot of work’, as Humpty Dumpty observed. They had clever rhymes, and their rhythm had me stomping round the house, singing the words in my head. Poems back then were playful and witty and exuberant.
Then I started high school.
I don’t really blame the teachers. They had a syllabus to get through and a lot of bored, unruly students to control. But my English teachers turned poetry into something to be killed and dissected, rather than experienced and loved. (They tried to do this to novels, too, but novels are simply too large and robust to be damaged by this treatment, and in any case, I was reading enough novels outside class to counteract any ill effects.) It wasn’t just that I hated writing essays about poems. It was the type of poems we had to read. They were all written by men, mostly dead white men, and were usually about subjects I had no interest in. For instance: in my senior year of high school, we had to read something by Les Murray about beans (truly), and something by Philip Larkin about Whitsun (whatever that is). We also studied The Canterbury Tales, which weren’t even written in English. Worst of all, there was John Keats and his morbid, mawkish odes about dead knights and old vases. I walked out of my final English exam vowing I’d never read any poetry, ever again.
I kept my vow, mostly. There are a lot of things other than poetry to read, and I was busy devouring novels and short stories and non-fiction. I did read a few verse novels, by people like Dorothy Porter and David Levithan. I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling that writers that good would have been better off writing proper novels, with punctuation.
Then I started writing my own novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, and realised almost at once that my narrator, Sophie, loved poetry. It was an essential part of her character, I could see that. Great. Now I’d have to start reading the blasted stuff again.
Well, here’s what I discovered. I still hated Keats, and I didn’t much like Tennyson, either. Reading Idylls of the King was like wading through treacle. I decided I preferred T. S. Eliot when he was writing about cats. But there were some pleasant surprises, too. For a Romantic, Shelley wasn’t too bad at all. I’d only ever thought of Kipling as one of those dusty Victorians with irritating views about India, but I loved The Bell Buoy. I found I absolutely adored W. H. Auden. And I’ve now ‘discovered’ (not really; I’m sure anyone with a degree in English Literature knows all about him) a wonderful eighteenth century poet I’m hugging to myself for the moment. A fragment of one of his poems is going into a pivotal scene of the third Montmaray novel, and I can’t wait to write that scene.
Note that all these poets are dead white men. I read these particular poets because that’s what Sophie and her friend Rupert were reading. In the 1930s. But apparently women wrote poetry, too, even back in the olden days. I haven’t got to them, yet. I may actually end up reading some for pleasure. You never know.