I used to collect poems, like some people collect postcards or glass paperweights.
I’d keep a notebook, and if I read or heard or found a poem I loved then I’d scribble it down, as though by writing the words out myself I could somehow own them.
Sometimes it wouldn’t be a whole poem, it would just be a phrase.
“a gossiping stream full of blethering pebbles”
“a shotgun sprinkle of freckles”
“I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.”
Good poetry – even a line or two – takes your breath away a little bit. Good poets make you feel like they have peeked inside your memory and plucked out an experience that you have lived, but then gone on to express your feeling or describe your scene better than you ever could yourself.
I would go to events to hear poets read their work. It was amazing how some were so comfortable speaking their words out loud, whereas others clearly hated it, standing stiffly, talking in a monotone that drained every last drop of passion from the poem on the page.
Eventually, with a lot of gentle encouragement, I started to write poetry too.
First at high school, where an enthusiastic teacher would fuel us with cups of coffee, before allowing us to write page after page of A4, stream of consciousness style. We would spend the first hour of class letting it all spill onto the page, then the second hour sifting through the results, rescuing any lines or phrases that might form the basis of something more substantial.
At University, my love of poetry increased. There was a writer-in-residence, who held weekly workshops where we’d read our work to each other and do writing exercises, before retiring to the pub. Appropriately enough, the closest one was The Blind Poet, which had quotations painted all over the walls. We would sit on tall barstools, sharing crisps, drinking cheap pints and smoking Marlboro Menthols as we wondered out loud which one of us would be published first.
(It came as no surprise at all when it turned out to be beautiful, talented Liz Berry.)
I found it thrilling. Suddenly I was spending time with the very poets whose works I had analysed in my English essays just a year or two previously. I was reading at events alongside people I idolised. I worked at the Edinburgh Book Festival during my summer holidays, always trying to cover the shifts that would let me attend the poetry events, and spending all my wages on the collections of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Roddy Lumsden. I completed a poetry module as part of my degree, and it was one of the very few courses I got a first in.
Poetry was a hugely important part of my life, so it was no big surprise when it was the topic that first allowed me to make conversation with DorkyDad. Before moving to Scotland, he had been a key part of the Beat Revival movement in New Hampshire. He’d done a Masters in Creative Writing, and had spent two summers at the Frost Place. He was – even then – a proper poet.
Since we met, he has gone from strength to strength, and I’m in awe of him. He has had a collection published, shared a bill with several US Poet Laureates, been Scottish Slam Champion, had one of his pieces read out on NPR, performed a one man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, hosted a Poetry Slam for the BBC two years on the trot… He deserves every last bit of it. He is brilliant, and I am so proud.
But for some reason I have gone in the opposite direction. I cannot remember the last time I wrote a poem. It no longer feels to me like the most natural way to say what I want.
It may be that I’m not reading much poetry. I don’t think you can really write well unless you read extensively. It may be that I’m not in that sparky, creative, challenging environment that university provided. Or it may just be that I have too damn much to say, and I can no longer cram it into the confines of a poem.
I think it’s more than that. I don’t think I am brave enough to write poetry anymore.
When all I had to write about was the nonsense that accompanied being nineteen, it was easy to write poetry. But now that my head is full of stuff that matters – love, parenting, loss, aging – it’s more difficult. It is too personal. You cannot write a good poem without cracking open your heart and leaving it on the page for people to see, and I don’t think I’m prepared to do that.
If I write a blog post and someone is indifferent to it, or even if they hate it, I just shrug and move on. But if I wrote a poem and put it out there, only to find that someone hated it, it would feel like a judgment, and I would be crushed.
For now, I am happy to leave poetry – the writing of it – to other people.
But I don’t want it to leave my life completely. I want to be a poetry reader again.
So I think I will go back to where I started – actively seeking poems to add to my collection. I’m going to browse the library and the charity shop looking for pamphlets that I’ve never read. I’m going to sign up for the Writers Almanac and have a poem delivered to my inbox every morning. I’m going to start a new notebook, for scribbling down those lines that inspire or touch me.
And I’m going to ask you for recommendations.
Please leave me the name of a poem or poet you love in the comments below, and I promise to check it out.
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