I don’t like poetry. There. I’ve said it. Go ahead and tell me that’s as bad as not liking children or animals – or art. Well, I like most children. I love animals. As for art, I like it – as long as it’s Art – and not an attempt to make lots of money by the deliberate act of shocking.
Perhaps I started with too sweeping a statement. I do like some poetry. My idol of the genre is Alexander Pushkin. His poetry is akin to music. It skips, tumbles and glistens like a brook in the sunlight. It is positively effervescent. I love the mathematical verses of Ronsard, Racine and, especially, Corneille. I enjoy the sensuality of Petrarca and Veronica Franco, and the wit of Trilussa. I have a soft spot for Rupert Brooke, though I get the impression that admitting to this is unfashionable as confessing to liking the music of Frederick Delius and the rest of the cow pat school of English composers. So sue me. Of course, I much admire Seamus Heaney and adore Dorothy Parker. These are only a few of the poets whose work I enjoy. There are others, but these are the ones who spring to mind on a Sunday afternoon as I am trying to finish this blog post before it gets dark, and the heating comes on in the house.
My chief objection to poetry, as a genre, is that – too often – it is used as an excuse for bad writing. Words are mis-spelt or mis-used, splodged on the page in apparently random order – presumably to give an impression of originality. Punctuation is left out – apparently to break free of constrictions. Grammar is ignored – perhaps in sign of artistic freedom. If you applaud, transfixed by the result, you are welcomed into the inner sanctum of those who understand. If, like me, you have the misfortune “not to get it” and – worse – actually say you don’t like it, then you are dismissed as an insensitive, narrow-minded ignoramus. “Poetry” becomes a shield against criticism. No prose writer can hide behind such a label. We have to sit there and take it, and accept the brutal fact that if the reader doesn’t “get it”, then it’s because it’s just written badly. No. No excuses.
At the wonderful writers’ group I sometimes attend, when members read out their prose, everyone feels free to comment – no matter how qualified or unqualified they may be to do so. And that’s fair. However, if a poem gets read out then, after an awkward silence, most listeners will preamble (yes, I know it’s a noun, but I am exercising the prose writer’s freedom to turn it into a verb) their comments with pussyfooting such as, “I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about poetry”, or “I don’t think I’m qualified to comment”.
Just what gives poetry diplomatic immunity? Let it be stopped and scanned at customs like everyone else.
A couple of my friends are poets. Live and let live. Until they said they were performing at a South London pub, on Guy Fawkes’ Night. There comes a time in every friendship, when you feel that your it’s-the-intention-that-counts credit runs out, and you have to put a drop of actual physical oil on the inner mechanism of your friendship. In other words, you can no longer get away with “Good luck – let me know how it goes”. You have to take your posterior over to where they are performing and support them for real.
And so off I trekked to the pub in South London, to the thunder of fireworks. Fountains of colour exploding against the black sky, then trickling down to the horizon.
I took a front seat – my loyalty might as well be in full view – did my best to plaster a smile over the grumpy owl expression on my face, and prepared to clap. My friends were announced from the stage.
A. should have been an actor. Tall and silver-haired, he spread his arms wide, and the entire pub audience fell into them. He turned up his palms, and inspiration seemed to rain into them. He recited his poems. Clever, quirky, subversive, sad, teasing. A jester unafraid to speak out because he knows who he is. From life’s injuries and lessons, he has sewn a cloak embroidered with stars. He admires them and does not attempt to pull them down from the sky.
C. frowns. Ash blonde hair against a pale and weary face. Too young to be weary but then his fair head is much, much older than the shoulders it rests upon. He is Mercury, skipping at full speed. His words are full of passion, anger, longing. Hard words, like a stone circle. Yet there is a laughing sprite dancing in the middle, leaping over a bonfire. A grinning imp.
N. stands up. Her heart-shaped face is framed by a greying blonde mane. Her voice is lithe, like a girl’s. From her lips cascade diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. Her words are like gemstones that glisten in the sunlight and the moonlight. Like a waterfall tapping a tune on the smooth rocks below. Like fairies flying over flowers.
I clap. Wholeheartedly. I smile. Wholeheartedly. Afterwards, I praise them. With all my heart.
I am proud to know them. There is magic in their poetry and I have fallen under its spell… at least for one night.