Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and there could be no better primer for reluctant poetry readers than William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy. Consider it the verse equivalent of Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: an accessible and inspirational guide that suggests the right piece at the right time to help heal a particular emotional condition.
Sieghart, a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, founded the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and National Poetry Day itself in 1994. He’s active in supporting public libraries and charities, but he’s also dedicated to giving personal poetry prescriptions, and has taken his Poetry Pharmacy idea to literary festivals, newspapers and radio programs.
Under five broad headings, this short book covers everything from Anxiety and Convalescence to Heartbreak and Regret. I most appreciated the discussion of slightly more existential states, such as Feelings of Unreality, for which Sieghart prescribes a passage from John Burnside’s “Of Gravity and Light,” about the grounding Buddhist monks find in menial tasks. Pay attention to life’s everyday duties, the poem teaches, and higher insights will come.
I also particularly enjoyed Julia Darling’s “Chemotherapy”—
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
and “Although the wind” by Izumi Shikibu:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Sieghart has chosen a great variety of poems in terms of time period and register. Rumi and Hafez share space with Wendy Cope and Maya Angelou. Of the 56 poems, I’d estimate that at least three-quarters are from the twentieth century or later. At times the selections are fairly obvious or clichéd (especially “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” for Bereavement), and the choice of short poems or excerpts seems to pander to short attention spans. So populist is the approach that Sieghart warns Keats is the hardest of all. I also thought there should have been a strict one poem per poet rule; several get two or even three entries.
If put in the right hands, though, this book will be an ideal introduction to the breadth of poetry out there. It would be a perfect Christmas present for the person in your life who always says they wish they could appreciate poetry but just don’t know where to start or how to understand it. Readers of a certain age may get the most out of the book, as a frequently recurring message is that it’s never too late to change one’s life and grow in positive ways.
“What people need more than comfort is to be given a different perspective on their inner turmoil. They need to reframe their narrative in a way that leaves room for happiness and gratitude,” Sieghart writes. Poetry is a perfect way to look slantwise at truth (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) and change your perceptions about life. If you’re new to poetry, pick this up at once; if you’re an old hand, maybe buy it for someone else and have a quick glance through to discover a new poet or two.
My thanks to Particular Books for the free copy for review.
Do you turn to poetry when you’re struggling with life? Does it help?
Books I’ve read and enjoyed:
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
Currently reading: Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
On the TBR:
- Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky
- How to Read a Poem by Molly Peacock
I like this reading with the seasons lark. It’s a shame that my library hold on Ali Smith’s Autumn didn’t come in until well after it turned to winter here in England, but I was intrigued by the sound of her post-Brexit seasonal quartet. Then, as if one winter anthology wasn’t enough, I tried another – this time a broader range of literature, history and travel writing.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Smith is attempting a sort of state-of-the-nation novel in four parts. Her two main characters are Daniel Gluck, a centenarian dying at a care home, and his former next-door neighbor, Elisabeth Demand, in her early thirties and still figuring out her path in life. The present world Elisabeth and her mother navigate is a true-to-life post-Brexit bureaucratic nightmare where people are building walls and hurling racist epithets – “news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Mostly the book is composed of flashbacks to wordplay-filled conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel when he used to babysit for her, as well as dreams/hallucinations Daniel is having on his deathbed. But there’s also a lot of seemingly irrelevant material about pop artist Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler.
This was most likely written very quickly in response to current events, and while some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – the nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and the jokey dialogue – I think I would have preferred a more circumspect, compressed narrative. In places this was too repetitive, and the seasonal theme felt neither here nor there. I’ll listen out for what the other books are like, but doubt I’ll bother reading them. Aspects of this are very similar to Number 11 by Jonathan Coe (the state-of-Britain remit, even the single mother hoping to appear on a reality show), but I much preferred his take. [Gorgeous cover, though – David Hockney’s Early November Tunnel (2006).]
Winter: A Book for the Season, edited by Felicity Trotman
This seasonal anthology contains a nice mixture of poetry, nature and travel pieces, and excerpts from longer works of fiction. Some favorite pieces were W.H. Hudson on the town birds of Bath in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain on his determination to keep wearing his trademark white through the winter, a Hans Christian Andersen dialogue between a snowman who longs to be by the stove and the yard-dog that warns him away, and Richard Jefferies on those who go out to work on a winter morning. But I enjoyed the poetry the most. Trotman includes a wide range of celebrated poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to John Clare and Wordsworth. I particularly liked a more recent contribution from Carolyn King, “First Snow,” in which a cat imagines that a giant wallpaper stripper has produced the flakes.
All told, though, there are too many seventeenth-century and older pieces with archaic spellings, and a number of the history and travel extracts, in particular, feel overlong – with nearly 40 pages in total from Ernest Shackleton’s South. Especially given the thin pages and small type, this represents a tediously large chunk of the book. Shorter pieces increase the variety in an anthology and mean the book lends itself to being picked up and read a few stories at a time. This is one to keep on the coffee table each winter and dip into over several years rather than read straight through. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
As it happens, I’ve now read five books titled Winter: besides the Wildlife Trusts anthology and the novel about Thomas Hardy, both of which I’ve already reviewed here, there’s also Rick Bass’s wonderful memoir of his first year in Montana and Adam Gopnik’s wide-ranging book about the season. But beyond those with the simple one-word title, there are a whole host of titles on my TBR containing the word “Winter”. Here’s the whole list!
Have you read any “Autumn” or “Winter” books this year?
Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
Trio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.
[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.