Saturday, 30 August 2008

Poetry in Peril? - Lucy Coats

How many children now read printed poetry for pleasure? Did they ever? Or is it just one of those things that has to be got through at school and then forgotten forever? I don’t think so. Poetry is part of all our lives. We start off as babies being sung to—not all of us, but most. Lullabies, nursery rhymes—all poetry. All of us can remember some of those, and we probably pass them on to our own children. They are part of the fabric of our family lives. But what happens later on? Certainly there are many excellent teachers who inspire and encourage children to write poetry, and it is taught to GCSE and A level (though the curriculum collections are not terribly exciting according to my son). However, most children I talk to find conventional written poetry totally irrelevant to their daily existence, even though they’ll listen to songs (poetry and music) all day on their i-pods—and maybe even learn the lyrics. They would read a book for pleasure—but a book of poetry? Forget it! That’s, like, homework or something. As a poet myself, writing for both children and adults, I find this deeply discouraging, and yet I will not stop writing poetry because of it.

For me, writing a poem is the most sublime of literary experiences in miniature. Every word—where it goes, what it is next to—every comma and full stop and colon or the lack of them, matters to me, whether it is ‘fun’ poetry such as limericks and modern nursery rhymes, or something more serious and deep. But—and this is important—what matters to me as a poet is not necessarily what matters to my readers. When I was doing my MA at Edinburgh, we did something called ‘deconstruction’ as a form of literary criticism. This was supposed somehow to give students an insight into the mind of the poet and his or her meaning. Deconstructing John Donne ruined his poems for me for years (and I think that Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction, should be consigned to Purgatory, but that is another discussion!). In my opinion (and please feel free to disagree), the essence of a poem will be experienced differently by each and every reader. However the one thing that will be held in common if it is a good poem is that the heart or mind have been touched by some sort of recognition, some sort of ‘oh yes—I have felt/seen/done (or whatever) that’ moment. My own adult poetry writing is triggered by all sorts of things—a walk, emotions high and low, a heard word, the colour of grass, the lines on my mother’s hand to name but a few. I write it for me, because I simply have to get that particular part of me down on paper. I fiddle and wrestle and reformat and layer meanings one on the other until I feel it is perfect of its kind—whether triolet or sonnet or free form. I no longer have to make it rhyme—though I do sometimes. What matters is the baring of my soul, and very often these poems are private and never shown to anyone. They don’t necessarily need any audience except me. My children’s poetry is different. That’s what I have fun with, play with, and hopefully sell. But it’s just as important to me to get it as perfect as I can. This applies to all my writing of course—but because a poem is shorter by its nature, every word is weighed and balanced, every syllable must count or out it goes.

In my own small way I do my best to get a very ancient form of poetry over to the next generation with my bardic poetry workshops—and I am eternally delighted with the incredible creativity shown by the many children I work with in schools. I know that Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and a myriad other poets both sung and unsung do a fantastic job on the road, and that poetry is manifested in many other ways—listen to rap lyrics for some very good modern examples of ‘non-conventional’ poetry. But I do despair that our children are not reading, discovering and enjoying some of the older stuff—or even the more modern—for themselves outside school. I don’t want to sound like a Grumpy Old Writer (though I fear I do), but I’d love it if the next book of poetry published could cause as much noise, gossip and fanfare and receive as much coverage as Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ did when it appeared in 1819. It’s ‘a thousand pities’ that it probably won’t.


Anne Rooney said...

My daughters both read Benjamin Z for pleasure - having a signed copy really helped. They also both read Roald Dahl's rhymes and were terrified of CrockyWock. I know that's not that's not exactly high literature, but it's something.

I think when the older one did GCSE English, that put her off poetry a bit - though she was impressed by some of the poems they did, I think the school did a lot to kill interest in poetry, partly through poorly selected works, as your son says.

As for Byron - maybe if the next poet has taken lots of Venetian lovers and swum the Grand Canal and looks as fit as Byron, there will be as much fuss. He was really the sexy pop idol of his day :-)

Doda said...

My sentiments exactly !

Sminky Minky said...

Hey there Lucy! I really enjoyed reading your blog and strongly identified with many of your comments -- it's always good to stumble across a like-minded soul! I'm currently bombarding selected publishers with some of my work (rhyming stories) and... it's proving to be quite a challenge. Ha, but of course!! My smile and determination remain undetered. Kind regards :-)