“I just don’t get it. Never did. Does nothing for me. Can’t read it, can’t write it, can’t understand it.” J. and I were out on the dock with his guitar, singing; exchanging songs, old and new, and in between times we’d chat about this and that. ‘This’ was why I liked to write, and ‘that’ was how he didn’t appreciate poetry. “You like a song with a good lyric, though, don’t you?”I asked him. He admitted that he did. “And don’t you see that as poetry? After all, hasn’t the Nobel prize for literature gone to songwriters in the past?” I couldn’t quite believe what I was arguing. A mural I had seen at Ottawa Bluesfest the week before popped into my mind. It read: ‘Music Is Poetry With Personality.’ Much as I love my music, when I spied those words, before I could help it, I had raised a judgemental eyebrow, thinking to myself, “Hardly!” Yet here I was persuading J. of that very point, or something close to it. To say that music is poetry with personality might be anesthetising poetry a little, but maybe we need to widen the scope of poetry, democratise it, melt its superior aura so that people feel that it is as accessible to them as music.
S. spoke to me of the same thing recently. She was writing a speech and I had suggested a line poetry for the mix, but she wondered if her audience might not be put off if she started to wax lyrical.Our discussion ran from there. She got to the nub of it pretty quickly: it’s the perceived ‘rules’ of poetry that put people off; the belief that poetry has to be opaque, (if not impenetrable), with a hefty garnish of unpronounceable, pretentious and highfalutin words. Of course, this is not true, and S. came to the point of declaring, “I can (and will) write anything I like and call it poetry.” You go girl! Rules can make us feel frightened and excluded, like an exclusive club to which we cannot ever belong. My late husband used to say that poetry was all around us: in every encounter, children playing, scenes of quiet domesticity. And, if I’m to be honest, I would think to myself: what a lovely sentiment but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I do now. Poetry doesn’t need to be trussed up like a boned, stuffed turkey; it’s not about ticking boxes to meet rules about patterns of rhyme, or structures of rhythm. Of course, poems can stick to certain criteria – I’m not saying we need to mess with the form of a haiku, or sonnet, or villanelle. But a poem can be your own succinct and punchy form of expression – and if you say it’s a poem, then it’s a poem. I went to see and hear two poets perform their work back in May. From Stirling and Glasgow respectively, William (Billy) Letford and Ciara MacLaverty were reading in a small hotel in Dunbar in East Lothian. It’s been one of the highlights of my year so far. They keep to the rules, and they break the rules. They were funny, fresh, stylish, provocative, inspiring and so very clearly enjoying themselves – as were their audience. There was nothing off-putting about these two; this was poetry with personality.
There is a marvellous poetry anthology, produced in Ireland, called ‘Lifelines’. It was a charitable endeavour where a visionary teacher in Wesley College, Dublin, encouraged her pupils to write to prominent Irish people asking them to nominate a poem and explain why it was their favourite. Sales of the book go to charity. It’s an eclectic mix and is fascinating to read why certain poems have been chosen. Yet I wonder how many of us would be put off choosing a favourite poem for fear of not appearing sufficiently learned? I’m guessing that choosing a favourite song might be less intimidating for many. And yet, isn’t it all one big circle of inspiration? Poetry, song, prose: all are heartfelt expressions, covering the gamut from the agony to the ecstasy. Both poems and songs can be funny, revolutionary, hopeful, wistful, celebratory, cautionary, elegiac, playful, evocative; between them, they throw us lifelines, they contain the lyrics of life.
Back on the dock, J. turned the page of his songbook. “Do you know this one?” he asked me as he began to strum. “I do, surely,”I said, throwing him a wink, “It’s one of my favourite poems.” We began to sing.
‘Vincent’by Don McLean (inspired by the painting of Vincent Van Gogh)
‘Starry starry night, paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills, sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winter chills, in colours on the snowy linen land.
And now I understand, what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now.
Starry, starry night, flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.
Colours changing hue, morning fields of amber grain,
Weather faces lined in pain, are soothed beneath the artists loving hand.’
(To J. – thank you for the music, x)