Tuesday, 20 May 2014

On poetry

Yeah, I can read. Get over it.

I read a lot. I recently started reading a poetry book (to go with all the other books I have on the go - sci-fi graphic novels, Idoru by William Gibson, Guardian Style, Oxford English Dictionary, Green Party new members' guide, Society for Editors and Proofreaders' Code of Practice, and a veggie cookbook bigger than my head).

This collection is written by one of my friends, The Shape of a Forest by Jemma King. One of the things I love about poetry is the way words are used so concisely, not one word wasted, always the correct one chosen. Long fiction writers can learn a lot from this. Here are some that struck me as I started this collection.
The damning thing was
the finger bone. Hers, they said. 
(Amelia Earhart)
Words, slipped into a narrative where you don't expect them (e.g. on turning a page) can have the ability to shock and pause.


The thighs'
wax and wane
remembered.
(Nuclear)
Good writing avoids cliches, invents new and refreshing concise word orders (in this case with suggestive visual imagery). The end of the poem ("The white windowed filament of time is burning") brings to mind Marvell's most famous bit of time-pressure wordsmithery.
From the classroom, the first
shriek of Japan's black lacquer
cracking.
(Japan)
The best things work on two levels at once: literal and metaphorical.
Half the known world is his.
His empire is a fire.
(Genghis)
I love a good undercutting comment.

It got me thinking about how I read poetry. For me, poetry is anti-fiction. What do I mean by that? Well, when a novel is done well I want to consume it all in one go. I can't wait to go to bed, or find time to take the book into the garden. Then I have a hard job putting it down. I get so caught up in the experience, the fast flow of words and experience in a single narrative, that I don't want to leave that fictional world. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the overarching story, and the fact that the words are generally laid out to run smoothly. But most poetry books are discrete elements, and the language is often chosen in order to make you stop, savour, chew, absorb and ponder. I can only do that if I then have a break to allow the word sandwich to digest. Then I come back to it later for another bite. If I try and do it in one go I am not doing it justice. This is also how I approach some non-fiction, such as books about writing (my favourite is Story, but my shelf is full of these kinds of books - some are excellent, some are awful). I like to read the advice, the examples, then go away and think about them. I apply the lessons and ideas to my own work, then come back for more later. Do any of you think of poetry like this? I'll take a step back: do you read poetry at all? Bear in mind that it might be poems and nursery rhymes read to children: it still counts.

I thought it would be fun to mention some of my favourite poems here.

  • The Cat Sat Asleep by the Side of the Fire. Short and sweet, but with mystery. Who is Jenny?
  • Old Shellover. I like the snail's perspective on the world.
  • Mice. I think they are rather nice too.
  • The Sick Rose. I first read this during my English A-level. It was one of the first poems that I decided to memorise. I loved the imagery, and the portrayal of jealousy (or at least that was how I interpreted it).
  • We'll go no more a-roving. I read a lot of Byron. My final year of English as an undergraduate was almost totally an in-depth study of Byron and the cult of Byronism. Did you know the first popular vampire in Western fiction wasn't Dracula, but was a figure based on Byron in a story by his doctor, Polidori? Anyway, this Byron poem was featured in my novel Cold Fusion 2000, when the poetry- and physics-obsessed geek recalls it while full of love for the woman he thought he had lost.
  • Many of the poems of Poe, who wrote about love and madness. A Dream Within a Dream stuck in my mind; as a teenager I would repeat that phrase like a tinnitus-ache. The City in the Sea made me think of Lovecraftian horrors, as did Dreamland.

Use the comments below to let me know what you think of poetry. Also, what are your favourite poems? (Link to them if possible!) And are there any poems or sections of a poem that you can remember? Test yourself by typing them out as a comment - no cheating!
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4 comments:

  1. One of my faves is 'Leisure' by W H Davies, who turns out to be Welsh I think. I've done the research so you don't have to - it's here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/leisure/

    As to what I can remember, well, very little. A few little snippets from Shakespeare, I remember the title Fern Hill, (R S THomas? or Dylan Thomas), and liking the poem, but can't recall a single line of it.

    I remember that sick rose one from A level English also.

    I must admit I don't normally read any poetry. If I'm reading, as an activity, I like to read and read, ie lots of time. Not just one poem. And to do a poem justice you have to sometimes linger on it for ages. I'm not very good at that deep stuff. I just like to race through words, stories.

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  2. Thanks Alyson. Your poem has squirrels in, so fits well with my mice, snails and worms. :-)

    I think it is a lot rarer to read poetry nowadays. In Byron's day (I know, I know, I'm always harking back to Byron's day!) every house was full of poetry books, and it was a major event when new ones by big-name poets were published. Nowadays there is an interest in song lyrics - I wonder if that is one way that poetry stays at the forefront of our minds?

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  3. I can't remember how we ever got started with this but my kids used to roar with happiness when I read out "Dead Fires" by George Mackay Brown. They were only about 2 and 4, it must be the sounds and funny phrases.

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  4. Aye, that sounds a wee bit Scottish! Some lovely phrases in it.

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