Monday, 18 May 2009

Poetry and Me - John Dougherty

We have a funny relationship, poetry and I. To be honest, I've never felt we get on as well as we should.

This is probably an odd - and perhaps slightly risky - statement, coming as it does from a man whose website and school visit promo material proclaim him to be 'Author, Poet, Songwriter', but it's true. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if I should take Allan Ahlberg's line and describe myself as 'a writer of verse' rather than 'a poet'. But then, Ahlberg's wrong about that; anyone capable of writing The Boy Without A Name is certainly a poet. And 'Author, Writer of Verse, Songwriter' wouldn't be terribly snappy.

But I digress. Or do I? Because, I suppose, one of my problems with poetry is: what is it? No-one's ever actually explained that to me. In all my years at school, and then all my years back at school teaching children about poetry, no-one's ever given me a definition that really works for me and that covers every poem I have ever met.

My MacBook's onboard dictionary gives the following definition: "a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure." I'm not sure I entirely understand that but, as far as I do, it doesn't describe every poem I've ever met.

Michael Rosen's attitude is, I think, quite healthy: when the accusation is levelled at him that he doesn't write proper poetry, rather than getting all defensive about it he says, fine, if you don't want to call it poetry call it something else. Call it 'bits' and 'stuff', if you like. As far as he's concerned, the important thing is writing it, not what you call it once it's been written.

I've been thinking about all this a bit lately, probably in the light of recent events - congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy, by the way, and if you should happen to read this, my daughter just borrowed The Tear Thief from the library and loved it - and it's occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons poetry and I rub along together so uneasily is that when I was young I was taught to approach it in the wrong way. Poetry's often an emotional art form, yet so often the teaching surrounding poetry treats it as an intellectual exercise: What does the poet mean by...? What effect is the poet striving for when he...? What is the poem about? What does it mean?

If the poet wanted to "make a point", surely (s)he would write an essay or make a speech? And if a poem works, shouldn't we be able to enjoy it without necessarily getting all that deep analytical stuff? Shouldn't we, first and foremost, just enjoy the words? Shouldn't we spend years reading poetry to children in a way that enables them to enjoy it, before we ask them to pick it apart?

In some ways this is a new thought, and yet in many ways it's an old one for me. Thinking about this lately, I remembered a poem I wrote when I was eighteen and which, from memory, goes something like this:

Note to an English Teacher
A poem
Is like a hamster
(Unless it is a long poem
In which case
It is like a large hamster)
And lively
(Unless it is a dull poem
In which case
It is like a sleepy hamster)

A poem has no fur
But it has a life
A life given it by the poet
Who is to the poem
As God to the hamster

But perhaps
The most remarkable similarity is
That you can take a poem apart
Dissect it
And analyse it

On putting it back together, you find that
Like a hamster in the same situation
It does not work
Half as well as it used to

I submitted that for the school magazine, but the teacher in charge rejected it on the grounds, I was told by another pupil, that it had no literary merit.

I just don't think she understood it...

Note to an English Teacher © John Dougherty 1982 & 2009


Charlie Butler said...

Shame on your teacher! It's great. And how many times have I had my students tell me that analysing a poem is like breaking a hamster on a wheel?

Oh wait, maybe that was a butterfly...?

Nah - butterflies don't even *have* wheels!

Ms. Yingling said...

Timothy Steele has a wonderful book entitled All the fun's in how you say a thing : an explanation of meter and versification that is fun to read if you want to better your relationship with poetry.

Linda Strachan said...

I have the same problem with poetry. I don't really know what it is. I know when I like it, (loved that one, John)and when I don't.

Not really sure we need to know what it is to enjoy it but I have always been fascinated to learn about the different (specific/styled) forms it can sometimes take, like a sestina or Haiku.
I love that you can also be very free with it, too, without set rules- although that is also where I get a bit lost.
When is it a poem and when is it something else?
Not sure if that makes sense but, there, I've said it!

Katherine Langrish said...

No literary merit? What a miserable person your teacher must have been. And no sense of humour. It's spot on.

And I totally agree. Children need to feel poetry in their bones, not analyse it. Back in the 1970's, I had a friend at school whose apparent interests were rolling up the waistband of her skirt to make it look like a mini, against school rules - and trying to figure out how much eye-liner she could use before the teachers noticed - and her favourite poem was Byron's 'The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold'. I don't suppose Miss ever realised she read poems at all...

John Dougherty said...

I think she *was* pretty miserable, actually, Kath - I very rarely saw her genuinely smiling.

Your friend sounds very cool, albeit the sort of girl who would have scared me silly at school. (Now if I'd put a line break in before 'albeit', would that have counted as a poem?)

Charlie Butler said...

Kath - you've inspired me!

Anna Pest was a girl in my primary school
She OD’d on Byron but played it real cool -
With her eyeliner on and her waistband rolled up
Who’d have thought that she drank from the Pierian cup?

Charlie Butler said...

Of course, it was probably secondary school - but hey, it still scans!

Marinela said...

I totally agree this poem is really good it shouldn't of been rejected !