Monday, 25 January 2010

Versus Verse

It took me a long time to like poetry.

Oh, there were always favourite lines and ringing phrases that stuck in my mind as utterances of both truth and beauty, but as for actually sitting down and reading wouldn’t go in. My eyes would pass over the page three, four times and I still had no conscious memory of what I’d read, and no understanding of the meaning of it.

There are still poets who sometimes do that to me; Geoffrey Hill and Emily Dickinson spring immediately to mind. There is still, occasionally, the nagging thought that this is all some kind of elaborate hoax or joke, that words are being strewn haphazardly across the page to create an illusion of profundity. I know that I’m wrong about this, but still...

Possibly the compression of poetry is an obstacle to me. I am far more excited by the idea of Kazantzakis’ sprawling modern Odyssey than I am by any poem of Dickinson’s. I am always attracted to things on a large scale. If I must have poetry I dislike selected poems – I want a poet’s complete works, as if by having that I can hold in my hand the entire person. (Or at least the complete contents of their mind.) The more a poetry collection resembles a story, a life – an epic verse novel – the happier I am.

But then do I read these gigantic books? Only rarely. Because the other factor that causes me to stumble when I approach poetry is the focus in on the words, rather than what they are saying. I am a great believer in what is said being more important than the precise means of expressing it (allowing a certain facility in the writer in the first place); even Flaubert, after all his labours, said that too much attention paid to the words was the mark of a second rate artist. I don’t believe in anything that comes between writer and reader – and too conscious an effort over words will do that.

But then, that’s what poetry is. Something that might be an arguable point when looking at Fiction Books cannot be applied to verse. So perhaps this has been my problem; I am a storyteller, a portrayer of character. I have no time for metaphor or elaborate descriptions; words for me are merely a means to an end. I don’t want the surface; I want to get at the meaning. And I find that difficult, still, with some poetry.

But I haven’t given up. Reading aloud has controlled my thirst for narrative, has slowed me down enough to better appreciate the rhythm, the metre, the cadences of poetry: I know that there are pleasures in there purer than any contained in the Fiction Books that I generally prefer. And I have no doubt that anything that causes us to slow down and take notice in this hurried and harried world can only be a force for the greatest good.


  1. 'and you read your emily dickinson, and I my robert frost, and we note our place with bookmarkers that measure what we've lost' ... I have had to make a conscious effort to get into poetry and i have only started really enjoying it, or getting it, over the last few years seems there can be mystery and alchemy in poetry that is very different to prose. saying that...i still dislike most poetry...there is a very thin line the good poet walks, at least for me anyway...i don't like things too oblique but i like it when things aren't spelled out and the combinations of words can form sometimes inexplicable but immenslely satisfying associations in the mind. i think it's so easy for a poet to sound like they're trying to be clever... for me, a good poet won't put language or technique as a barrier between meaning and the reader, but will lead the reader along an mentally and aurally satisfying path to a truth whilst keeping all of his tools out of sight... i always find that when i listen to other people reciting poems that I love...they never get it right.

  2. I got into poetry thanks to going to spoken word events, after all it's an oral tradition. I understand a poem better if I have the physical voice of the poet in my head...