Poems (No, wait – come back!) (Suggestion 15)

Some people really would rather run a mile than have to study poetry. It can have a reputation as being boring, difficult and a waste of time. Perhaps it’s a pity that many readers first study poetry when they are at school; in your school years there are so many interesting (and some not-so-interesting) things in your life that you either want to do, or have to do, that it’s maybe not the best time to introduce an experience which – yes – may take hard work at times, but which can have immense rewards.

For some people, poetry is read or spoken to them when they are very young, and that can give them a “head start” when it comes to realising that not all poetry has to be serious, or sad, or hard work. Nursery rhymes are a great way to start really young people on poetry: most babies and youngsters respond to rhythm, rhyme and other people’s voices. If that happened to you, you are fortunate.

Like several things we are made to learn at school, poetry is put in front of us as pupils because even if we don’t like (or see the point of) it now, we might very well need it in our lives beyond school. If we can be taught not to run away from poetry, it will be easier for us to turn to it again in future at particularly sad or happy times in our lives – or just for fun, or entertainment, or to find out more about how people lived and thought and felt in past times.

If the idea of someone NEEDING poetry makes you snort in disbelief, then I think you have been pretty lucky in not yet experiencing times in which you feel very much alone. One of the great comforts of some poems is that they allow us to realise that other people have experienced the same troubles (and joys) as we have done.

What is poetry?

There are many answers to that question, but I invite you to think about poems as pieces of work in which words are used for more than just their surface meaning. Someone writing a poem may well – probably does – put a great deal of work into choosing words that will have effects on the reader, not just convey information to him or her.

Imagine the picture that is created in your mind, for example, by this description (a “dinghy” is a rowing boat):

The dinghy across the bay

Puts out two hands and swims

An elegant backstroke over

A depth full of images1

A poem, then, is an experience where the reader is expected to work harder than usual in responding to the words written down (or spoken). In that sense, yes, poetry can be hard work; but like most things in life, the more effort you put into it, the more you’re likely to get out of it.

And in case that sounds just horribly “preachy”, let’s finish today’s post with encouraging words from a poet whose work can be funny and straightforward, and no less important for that. Firstly, Wendy Cope comments on the view that some poems are for adults and others are for children: “There is no such thing as a poem that is only suitable for children. If it’s bad, it is unsuitable for everybody. If it’s good, there is no age limit.”

Reflecting on her own work in particular, she writes: “I do believe that humour and powerful emotion can exist in the same poem. And that a funny poem can be saying something important. … I think that humour often arises out of misery and despair. Sometimes life seems so terrible that all you can do is laugh at it.” Her best-known poem, probably, is called Bloody Men. I’ll leave you to look that one up on the internet yourself, if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, here are two light-hearted (but thought-provoking!) and short verses by Wendy Cope.

Limerick

A talented young chimpanzee

Was keen to appear on TV.

He wrote to Brooke Bond

But they didn’t respond

So he had to become an MP.

Valentine

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

Whatever you’ve got lined up,

My heart has made its mind up

And if you can’t be signed up

This year, next year will do.

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.2

1 Extract from No End, No Beginning by Norman MacCaig

2 Both from Two Cures for Love by Wendy Cope (Faber and Faber, 2008)

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