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Get Past the Fear of Poetry with Susan Lindsay

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Poetry Guides | Getting Started in Poetry

Susan Lindsay

Poetry is irrelevant or has elitist language you find patronisingly offensive? It’s archaic. You don’t understand poetry and contemporary poems just aren’t poetry at all, they don’t even rhyme…

The most usual reason given for missing out on poetry, is having been put off it at school but the people saying so usually acknowledge that certain lines, images or rhythms have remained with them to pop up on occasion – often providing a moment of sustenance or adding significance to an occasion of pleasure so, all is not lost.

Poetry begins only when a reader discovers poetry: in a particular verse, or phrase – or finds something significant in words – that may, or may not, have had the same significance in the poet’s mind at the time it was written. A poet often looks back, even at a published piece of their own work, and realises their poem is more about something they see in it now than what they thought it was about when they wrote it. Not much chance for you then, if you expect to discover what it is supposed to mean.

This is the Catch 22 that bedevils education – the question of finding the right answer. But the deeper one travels into any field of knowledge the more it becomes clear that right answers are, mostly, only correct within certain defined limits. It is in finding the right question, having any question for which to search for an answer, that the heart of education is to be found. Fostering curiosity and a sense of wonder from early on is the cornerstone of achievement and learning in all fields of study.

We are all seeking answers and agreed answers make us feel secure. Exams require answers – and the right answers receive most marks. But there is more security to be found in knowing how to ask a good question because the questions asked determine paths taken – guided by whatever degree of truth and wisdom has been learned.

Poetry is subversive. The good stuff questions all regimes, as does the best of all education. That is why universities used to be considered one of the critical – a word used advisedly here – pillars of society’s system of checks and balances

Get stuck into poetry. Don’t be afraid of it. Ask yourself lots of questions about any poem – the good ones pose them in plenty – trust and enjoy your answers. Exercise your imagination in coming up with further possibilities.

Is this a poem? Why?

She’s got Neptune salad, Pluto pie,

Stardust sugar from Orion’s sky,

Angel fish, meteor bars,

Purple pumpkin from the planet Mars.’

It doesn’t seem to make much sense. The objects suggest the sky. Carol Ann Duffy has combined unusual things to make it imaginative and exciting. We have pictures rather than a narrative. The start, ‘She’s got…’ suggests it may be part of a story. Might I be right in thinking that whether or not a piece rhymes would be one of the criteria you visit when deciding if something is a poem?

I’ve chosen this because it was written for children. If you ask a child what a poem is they’ll probably mention rhyme. Children – and all of us – enjoy rhythm and rhyme. This book from Carol Ann Duffy and Joel Stewart, Moon Zoo (Igloo Books, 2007) may, or may not, be described as a poem but it is certainly poetry. ‘…Strange and beautiful…’ Independent said of a previous children’s book from the pair. The lines above give us a list. So this stanza/verse/piece, were it on its own, could be considered a list poem.

When I went to my first poetry class nine years ago, we kept asking: ‘but is this a poem? How do you know?’ There are many answers to that question – particularly to do with lines and where they break. Now, two published books later – Whispering the Secrets, 2011, Fear Knot, 2013 (Doire Press )- I still ask that question and enjoy reading books that discuss it.

You could try making a list of what you come up with when you ask: is this a poem? Whether or not you like poetry, it could be interesting to clarify how you judge it. You might even try making a poem out of the list! Poems do not always end in lines that rhyme. There are many places you might put a rhyme. It might be a slant rhyme – not quite recognisable as a rhyme at first. It might come in the middle of a line. There are poems that have very little rhyme in them. Whatever poem you interrogate, read it out loud. Listen – to the pace, the rhythm, the obvious and the not so obvious rhymes.

(c) Susan Lindsay

About the author

Susan Lindsay’s second collection of poetry Fear Knot was published by Doire Press in 2013. She is a co-editor of Skylight 47, ‘possibly Ireland’s most interesting poetry publication’ and a member of Skylight Poets writers’ workshop and the poetry reading group at Oranmore library. She facilitates conversations mediated by poetry and she read for the 2011 Poetry Ireland Introductions Series.


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