I think pretty well all of us are poets at heart – it’s just that most of us don’t dare to ‘come out,’ fearful that our ramblings would be embarrassing or mundane, and as far removed from the greats that we read at school as Ireland is from Australia. And what a shame that is! The shelves in the local bookstore would have far more poetry books if people lost their inhibitions and simply had a go – as I did after decades of dithering. I’d written poetry all my life, but never took anything further than the attic until I met the fabulous Jonathan Williams, now my agent in Dublin – and tentatively gave him a handful of poems to look at. His encouragement and support led to a complete collection and to my first book ‘A Red Dress’ published in 2008, and then to two more – ‘What am I doing here’ (2011) and now ‘And guess who he was with?’ published this Valentine’s Day, and hopefully to a new collection next year. With a bit of effort and luck, exactly the same could happen to you!
On top of the fear of sounding plonky and embarrassing, there’s another one that holds us back: that of sounding too everyday and commonplace. We think of the soaring themes of the great poets like Keats and Shelley, or the complex turmoil of poets like Plath, and then give up before we even start. But what is wrong with the everyday and commonplace? In my view it’s a terrific place to start. For example, would you think that washing up could make a poem? Of course, it can! Here’s one of mine:
It’s me who’s washing up – again.
I bang and clatter every pan.
But does he ever get the hint?
Selective deafness – that’s my man.
He tells me how a camshaft works,
my mind has wandered off elsewhere.
Selective deafness, that is me –
and not one fact has gone in there.
A moment in most marriages
is when we shut off, close our ears
to things we do not want to hear.
It doesn’t take that many years.
And here’s another very everyday verse of mine. It’s not Wordsworth, but like him I love daffs!
Prozac lifts depression, but flowers work better still.
It’s good to keep some flowers upon your windowsill.
A single bloom can comfort – one golden daffodil
can lift your mood in minutes, much faster than a pill.
And if we aren’t worried about sounding too mundane or ordinary, we’re frightened about getting the metre right. But then, it doesn’t even have to rhyme at all. Here the first eight lines of a poem I wrote about a day at the sea.
Last week, we went to the sea.
Waves with frothy edges of whipped cream
dissolving into wind-blown granny curls.
And all underfoot was shining beach jewellery,
sea-sucked pebbles licked into smooth boiled sweets.
The sand was pocked and pimpled by raindrops.
And I wrote our names there – sloping, slanting,
for the sea to steal and swallow.
Problems number three, four and five are the vague belief that poetry has to be somehow soul-searching to be any good. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t have to be about you at all. In fact, one of my all time favourite poems is this one, inscribed on the collar of the King Charles spaniel that belonged to King Charles I, and written by Alexander Pope.
I am his Highness’s dog at Kew.
Pray tell me Sir, whose dog are you?
But perhaps the biggest problem facing poetry in general (and people who might otherwise write it) is that so much of it is bloody hard to understand. Quite frankly, it’s too much of an uphill struggle. So much modern poetry is either self-absorbed or wallowing in waves of misery. I don’t write poetry that makes people want to slit their wrists – or worry that I might. And I don’t treat a poetry book as some sort of confessional box for my troubled soul. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being lighthearted.
Quite frankly, I think it’s sad when people think poetry has to be obscure to be any good, or even poetry at all. And I’d go even further – I believe that one day it could kill off the whole genre, or at least see poetry in terminal decline. It’s not that healthy already. You only have to look at the tiny poetry section in the local bookshop. It’s bigger here in Ireland than it is in England, but not that much. And it’s certainly not big enough!
In short, poetry shouldn’t be like medicine – hard to swallow, but good for you!
Another thing I’d say to budding poets is don’t be afraid to steal great metres! Pick out a favourite poem and simply copy the way it’s constructed. I certainly do from time to time. Here’s a verse which copies the metre of one of my all time favourite poems – John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. I’ll never be Keats, but I can copy his construction. And you could too!
ODE TO A BLIND DATE IN A CLUB
My heart sinks, and a heavy dullness pains
my head, as though already I were drunk,
or emptied all last dreams into the drains
one minute past, and ever downwards sunk.
You’re not for me, that’s all to plain to see,
quite vanished any hopes I had before,
but say hello I must, and talk to you
despite my urge to grab my bag and flee,
unshackled, single, flying through the door,
and faster than a blind date ever flew.
Joanna Lumley was kind enough to write the Foreword for my first book, and I was touched and delighted by what she said. ‘Another thing that interests me is the sheer approachability of these poems. So much contemporary poetry can be maddeningly obscure, or at worst, self-indulgent. Liz strikes that rare balance between being challenging and accessible at the same time, and should move those that never normally like poetry.’ That was a big thrill. In fact, all of it is a big thrill that I would never have dreamed of even five years ago. It’s lovely to reach out and touch people, including those who don’t normally like poetry. And you can do that, too. It really is never too late to start writing poetry, or have a go at it. I’m the living proof!
And remember, absolutely anything can make a poem. Anything. Even a humble snail. I’ll leave you with a poem from a book I’ve just written about amateur gardeners – including me!
It’s time I learned to stamp on snails,
not throw them over walls.
Each time I throw, the guilt won’t go
about how each one falls.
Quite dead on impact? Hard to tell.
The shell is smashed for sure.
But just how long does each survive?
Ten minutes? Maybe more.
If I were born a humble snail,
I’d like a kinder end,
not have my house smashed into me
as soon as I descend.
I think each knows the end is nigh –
retracting in its shell.
I’m sure they know before you throw
that all is far from well.
I’ve smashed a load of gastropods –
a thousand, maybe more.
If God loves snails, he won’t love me,
of that I can be sure.
And God himself might be a snail
and take one look at me
and throw me out, or into hell
for all eternity.
Have fun penning poetry, and the best of luck!
(c) Liz Cowley