Recently in my writing group we had a very interesting conversation about poetry and why so many people feel they are unqualified to comment on it let alone attempt writing it. Both myself and another very accomplished poet argued that poetry should be for everyone and the reason so many people are put off is because their introduction to it has been stultifying. We are made to feel that if we don’t understand form, method, metre, then we’d best step aside and leave it all to the professionals. But I believe we all intrinsically grasp poetry because it is first and foremost about the sound of words. Us humans relish rhythmic sounds. It’s why we listen to music, sing and dance. I stand by this opinion as I have to teach children about poetry and am met by their fear of it coupled with the idea it will be too difficult to understand.
In a classroom full of resistance to poetry I start with just one word. Your basic, everyday common noun. I ask them to list several objects: book, cheese, knife, snake etc. Then I show them how very easy it is to turn this one word into an image which we instantly recognise. At this point I ask them to choose a favourite word and turn that into a picture. Even the child who considers itself utterly uncreative is able to complete this exercise. Now I explain that this is an Image Poem and since each of them has created one, they are now, each and every one of them, bonafide poets.
Every time I do this exercise I watch my classroom assistants look at me with confusion. It must be a trick. It can’t be that simple. Yet I maintain it is. For me, poetry starts with just one word.
I remember once being told that a poem is like a painting or drawing but instead of using colour and line, we use words. I think poetry helps us understand the texture and flavour of a word. Starting small is a beginning and we should always savour the good things in the world.
One word can then become three lines containing seventeen syllables and suddenly your budding poet has created a haiku. The journey through poetry has begun. I favour learning by doing. The more you do something, the more you hone the skill. Muscle memory for the brain.
I started writing poetry when I was about 12. The impetus was my English teacher at the time – Miss Donalda Patrick who always wore her hair in Princess Leia buns. She asked us to create an anthology of our favourite poems. Under each we had to state why we had chosen that particular poem.
I didn’t have the vocabulary I currently possess to express how those poems made me feel. But this was when I realised I relished certain words for their connotations and the way they felt on my tongue and palate as I sounded them out loud. This was also when I began to understand the value of the spoken word – how a poem read to oneself took on a whole different timbre when read aloud by Miss Patrick. There was none of those hideous pauses at the end of lines when they weren’t warranted or the dum dee dum delivery I had been taught at primary school. It was magic.
Of course at the time my poetry rhymed. I was 12 years old. And surely, all poetry rhymes when you’re that age. Now I write and care not a fig for convention. I play with form, in so much as I understand of it. My knowledge is minuscule compared to other poets I know. The main thing is that I write because I feel the need to express myself and I write what is important to me. The rhythm of it, the sound of it pleases me. Of course I look for validation. Who doesn’t? But I don’t let my lack of knowledge stop me. I can learn all that stuff. That’s what reference books, courses and the internet are for. Right?
A collaborative poetry collection told from the point of view of the animals. Some of their views are not exactly pretty.