How to Love Poetry

After spending the last academic year as a module tutor on my department’s final year ‘Modern Literature’ course, this semester I’ve returned to where I first began – tutoring and lecturing poetry and poetic theory to lots of engaged and enthusiastic first year undergraduates.

It’s always such a pleasure to be a part of this course. You get to witness your students develop from prose enthusiasts who are often fearful or indifferent to poetry at the start of the semester to passionate and sophisticated advocates of verse by the time it comes to the summer. Many seem to arrive at the first seminar already certain that they don’t really like poetry and certainly don’t understand it. I understand this feeling. To a small extent I felt it myself when I was just starting out as a student. As an evangelical convert it’s therefore a wonderful, if challenging, task to make them change their minds.

The shift from fear and indifference to appreciation and understanding often takes place when they begin to re-assess their whole idea of what it means to ‘understand’ poetry in the first place. For this reason I want to set out some of the common things that can initially hold back a new reader, and then I’ll talk about some ways around these issues.

So, first up, the challenges:

PART ONE: DIET PROSE

There’s a tendency – sometimes first acquired during GSCE and A-Level study – to try to read and assess poetry in exactly the same way as prose. New, uncertain (and even complacent) readers begin a poem with a checklist of what to look out for. They need a theme or story, a clear narrative, a beginning, middle, and an end. They need to know what the poem is ‘about’, what the poet is trying to tell them, and even how that relates to the poet’s life itself. And then they get frustrated when they can’t find one definitive answer to any of these questions. They know what alliteration, onomatopoeia, and sibilance mean, but not how and why they mean – their place in the on-going and usually unresolved drama between the form and the content of the poem.

Read in this way, poetry is frustrating, alienating, and unsatisfying. It’s like Diet Prose – it’s sort of got the same ingredients – language – just less of it. It sort of tastes the same, just with less of the rich narrative and juicy descriptive sections. It sort of fills you up, but you finish sooner than expected, and are left with blank space where there should be more. It’s like being given a Ryvita, or one of those awful rice cakes, when all you want is a big bag of chips.

For these same reasons poetry is also often perceived as being less weighty and nourishing, more decorative. It’s appropriate only for weddings and funerals, but has little value outside of that (save revealing the horrors of the First World War – a subject which seems to break the mould). In one lecture I conducted a quick, ad-hoc survey on whether the students felt poetry was more like bread or cake – whether they thought it was necessary in society or merely something cooked up and enjoyed on special occasions. Nearly everyone (apart from the other staff and a few brave souls) said that it was cake. Now I know I’m mixing my metaphors here – first poetry is diet prose and now its opulent and indulgent cake. It’s nearly dinnertime as I write this, and it shows. But this juxtaposition between the sparse and the indulgent also sums up how people often perceive poetry. It’s both lacking and unnecessarily opulent. It’s an indulgence and an empty plate.

I’ve outlined some of the problems that students and readers face when they first encounter poetry as early researchers and critics, but this post isn’t about the failure of readers. It’s about their development and eventual success. So in the next part I’m going to talk about how these challenges can be addressed.

PART TWO: THE TURNAROUND

In the first part of this post I discussed the issues that sometimes hold a reader back from loving poetry. Now I’m going to look at how and when this starts to change.

At different times across the semester you see these little light bulb moments occur when a student stops reading poetry as prose and reads it as poetry; when they finally understand why a poet might write an elegy when they could have simply mourned the dead, or why they chose to address a political issue within the formal confines of a poem when they could have written as much as they liked on the subject elsewhere. They discover the power of poetry – they see how it makes the world strange, and reminds us of its existing strangeness. They begin to note how it invites and defies conclusion and definition, and attests to the fact that every word, line ending, punctuation mark, rhyme and non-rhyme matters. Earlier I called poetry Diet Prose, but in reality poetry is the opposite of diet. It is concentrated language. It is a nourishment of ideas.

There are a few poems that never fail to act as a catalyst for this moment of realisation (even when the student in question doesn’t even like it that much). Often they are modern or contemporary poems, or pieces whose overt and deliberate strangeness instantly alert the students that something different is going on. When students are set ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, for example, or ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, they often come to the seminar thinking that they’ve got nothing to say, but then leave amazed that ‘so much depends’ on just a few words on the page, ordered in a certain way.

If you look at the poem itself, at first glance it seems like very little is going on:

The Red Wheelbarrow (via Academy of American Poets)

Left with almost a whole page of blank space, a reader might feel short changed by William Carlos Williams – particularly after he’s assured us so emphatically that ‘so much depends’ on this everyday, altogether unremarkable object. Expecting the same things from the poet as we would from the novelist we are left desiring an explanation as to why we should ‘depend’ on this mundane wheelbarrow for entertainment, enrichment, or truth. Things start to change though, when we consider what this poem is saying about poetry, reading, and beauty itself. Prose doesn’t always need to remind us of its self-consciousness and anxiety, but poetry does. If you bumped into poetry on the street you’d find yourself embroiled in a twenty-minute conversation about its ailments, or its recent success at work. Or else you’d stand patiently and mutely as it rattled on about its foray into veganism or bikram yoga, trying not to seem rude when it implored you to look at its body to see if you could see the difference. It’s like Woody Allen’s character in every one of his films: neurotic, narcissistic, and self-absorbed. But unlike these men it’s all the more interesting and appealing for it.

Poetry’s self-consciousness and reflexivity makes it great, and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is a prime example of this greatness. When a student realises this, and starts to see how the poem is commenting on tradition, form, and innovation, they come away shocked that such a small poem can say so much. Things such as: how poetry can celebrate the ordinary and everyday rather than the ‘Grecian Urn’ or other more traditionally ‘poetic’ objects. Or how it plays with the subjectivity versus the objectivity of the poetic voice. Or how it challenges the reader’s need for meaning – we sometimes expect to find a higher truth or moral in our poetry, and when that’s denied to us it forces us to question the role that we play in the poetic process. Similarly when readers see the part that form plays in this dynamic – how ‘so much depends’ on the line breaks and the way they lead us on in anticipation of the elusive answer to the poem – then that idea of poetry as something concentrated and self-conscious really shines through.

Other poems, like David Wheatley’s ‘Sonnet’, show readers that rules are made to be broken. They demonstrate how forms like the sonnet, which can seem so stilted and formulaic at first glance, in fact offer the perfect structure for innovation. Sometimes a poem like ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden shows them the power and tendency of poetry to face difficult and distressing subject matter, and to do in in such a way that your sympathy and ethical judgement become uncomfortably intertwined. A poem like ‘The Heartless Art’ by Tony Harrison shows them how seemingly un-poetic topics and language are still the stuff of great literature; how these elements actually make the poem full of heart rather than ‘heartless’. Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carol Ann Duffy empower readers to see that poetry can re-write literary and social traditions and norms. They show how humour can be a tool of defiance and intellectual prowess. Pieces by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and more recently, Danez Smith, show them how the ‘cage’ of poetic form can sometimes make the poet sing louder, and more defiantly, than they ever could in prose.

These are just a few examples of pieces that inspire and ignite the imagination. There are so many more, and often it is the ‘old’ poems, read in new ways, which start this process off. This is particularly the case when students start to realise how poetry is self-conscious of its own artifice, creation, and posterity. Looking at Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Sidney’s ‘Loving in Truth’, and so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s wonderful to see how the gaze of the poem turns inwards as well as outwards. Every poem is in a way an ‘Ars Poetica’, pointing the reader to the ways that its form and content come together and then fall apart. They are all concerned with how each word contains both a poetic meaning and an external one, and how this doubleness comes to affect and shape the finished piece. Poems are finished and highly crafted sculptures, but they give you glimpses of their rough stone.

Speaking of the ‘rough stone’ of poetry, another way to ignite the imagination is to learn about how poems are drafted, even to see examples of these in library archives and online resources. At Leeds we are lucky to have a wonderful poetry archive, and it’s great to take students up to see and handle the notebooks of some of the poets they study in their degree. In regards to creative writing, doing this also acts as a remedy to the distorted notion of ‘inspiration’. What I mean by that is the misconception held by some that poems just pop into a poet’s head, are written down on the spot, and are immediately finished, no drafting or re-drafting needed. Whilst this might happen sometimes (lucky poets!), for the most part a poem is a process of crafting and revision, and it’s good to show students this. It brings the poem alive – it reminds the reader how it is an organic, changing thing, often with its roots in ideas and language not previously imagined.

When I describe what poetry ‘does’, I like to repeat Emily Dickinson’s words: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. This, to me, is why poetry is so wonderful. But I wanted to end with these wonderful lines from Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star, which depicts the love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Describing poetry, and how it should be read, Keats provides this wonderful metaphor:

‘The point of diving in a lake is not to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out … Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.’

My point exactly.

‘Three Miles’: The Importance of Widening Participation

I’m a fan of This American Life, the podcast that’s found a new following in Britain due to its offshoot, Serial. As well as exploring the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore teenager who’s now served fifteen years in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, This American Life are also responsible for some of the best cultural, social, and political journalism that I’ve encountered in a while. At their best their features are sensitive, well researched and thought provoking, and although – as the title suggests – they’re focussed on the ‘American life’, the issues they explore are easily (and necessarily) transferrable across the Atlantic. Recent programs include an exploration of innate racial bias and relations between police and communities, deportation and the idea of home in Mexico, and more recently, the education system and the expectation gulf between the public and private school system.

Entitled ‘Three miles’, this particular episode looks at a public school in the Bronx – University Heights – and explores what happens when some of their most gifted students are taken to visit the nearby Fieldston– an elite private school located only three miles down the road. Here’s the official synopsis:

There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better.

All in all, it was an incredibly depressing programme. But the stories of these students who, in the decade that followed, tried to effectively break out from their background, raised some difficult but important questions for all educators to consider, regardless of whether they work in primary, secondary, further, or higher education. Questions like How do we make sure it’s not just the privileged who benefit from seeing how ‘the other side’ live and learn? And How do we make sure that exposure is a positive experience for everyone involved? The children from Fieldston got to see and appreciate just how lucky they were to go to a school with a fully-stocked library and separate classes for each year group, but when the teenagers from University Heights got back on that bus and made the short trip across the Bronx to their tiny school with no library and classes of fifty, what did they do with that experience? How did they make sense of that one day on the ‘other side’ and its relation to the rest of their lives?

The answer that all of us, including myself, want and hope to hear is that they went back having seen what life could be if they worked hard and went to College. That they saw the stone buildings and libraries and playing fields and felt inspired to carry on with their studies. It’s the belief that I think we all hold: that exposure – to new ideas, new places, new possibilities – is a fundamentally important part of raising and educating young people. It’s an idea rooted in scientific research, with neuroscientists such as Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore raising awareness of the learning brain; of the continuing ‘synaptic plasticity’ of the teenage mind. Professor Blakemore and others’ research has in recent decades disproved the long-held belief that our brains cease to change and develop after the first few years of life. Now we know that both the physiology and the function of the brain continues to alter right into early adulthood, and that social factors play a huge role in shaping this neurological development.

This is a powerful notion that brings with it big responsibility. It also supports the anecdotal, pedagogical and psychological evidence as to the huge effect both of exposure, and social, educational, and personal circumstances on brain and identity formation. But returning to ‘Three Miles’, many of these students returned home with nothing but frustration and disillusionment. Rather than inspiring them, their experience at Fieldston only confirmed to them how little they had, and how their lack of educational opportunities had pre-determined the course of their lives.  They went home knowing how those three miles had make it so that they would be ‘holding doors open’ for the students of Fieldston, rather than walking through them with them. Their brains may have had the ‘synaptic plasticity’, but their social and economic opportunities were as rigid as they have ever been. To add to this, they were not equipped with the tools to turn this initial exposure into a long term and positive change. There was not the support network, at school or at home, to give them the confidence, help, and special attention that they so desperately needed.

That was ten years ago, and I imagine a lot has changed and developed since then in regard to this particular exchange. Certainly there are thousands of fantastic programmes across the world that broaden the horizons and opportunities of young people from every background.  But discussing the visit with the original participants – now in their mid–twenties and for the most part working in menial jobs with no college degree and a continuing sense of bitterness and failure – the conclusion that the reporter came to was one that I’m sure many of us in the UK still recognise as a pressing and unresolved challenge: That there is still a gulf that runs across and beyond geography and money – one that creates a barrier far harder to cross than the space of three miles.

What the failure of the exchange comes down to was something bigger than the buildings and books. It transcended Fieldston and University Heights.  It failed because no matter how much we expose young people to new worlds and opportunities beyond their immediate experience, we also need to equip them with the sense of entitlement and self-worth that will enable them to envisage themselves as successful, bright, deserving and valuable members of society. As one bright and enterprising girl in the programme reflected, ‘how am I meant to convince anyone that I’m capable of doing anything, when I still can’t convince myself?’ She was one of the few who made it to ‘the other side’. She didn’t quit college; in fact she got a scholarship and a degree, and is now working as a teacher. Yet this lack of worth that every interviewee articulated still hasn’t left her. She was still waiting for someone to tell her to get back on that bus.

***

There were no answers in ‘This American Life’, only questions. Questions that, as a post-graduate tutor at a wonderful University English Department, I also ask myself. I know that I’m in a privileged position. Privileged because I meet bright and inquisitive undergraduates on a daily basis. Privileged because I get to work alongside colleagues whose research I admire, value, and seek to emulate. Privileged because of the intellectual freedom, liberal discussion, healthy debate, and celebration of thought, learning, and questioning that permeates across the campus. And of course ‘privileged’ because, like all Russell Group Universities, the academic (and student) population of my department is largely white and middle class. I’m proud of where I am and what I do. But I also feel that it can mean very little without any attempt to communicate research and engage with a community outside of academia. Outreach, impact, and engagement might sometimes feel like arbitrary buzzwords applicable only to REF assessments, but they can also be something very real and urgent. I certainly feel a responsibility to communicate my research, and to find ways to collaborate and develop new ideas with those outside of my immediate research field.

These issues and questions are also ones that, as an Education Outreach Fellow for my department, I’m reminded of in a  positive way. I’m very lucky to meet many incredibly bright young people from around the Leeds and Yorkshire area who might have never considered attending university until their visit. It’s a wonderful job to teach them about poetry, run creative writing sessions, and to help them see themselves as belonging to the same tradition as those poets who, before that moment, seemed a world away. Yet there’s always the fear that they won’t quite be able to marry their day out at the University to every other day, that they won’t be able to see themselves in the faces that walk past them on campus, or hear themselves in the voices of their tutors.

One of the great things about literature is that it can offer them an alterative to ‘Received Pronunciation’. One of my favourite things to do with students from the Leeds area is to read out Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and ‘U[z]’ as a group. Not only do they love finding out that Harrison grew up in Beeston and attended the university, they also enjoy finding their accents and speech pattern in the rhyme and syntax of the poem. I always make a point of noting how the poem doesn’t work as well when I read it – I can’t make ‘matter rhyme with water’ with my Southern accent! Being able to talk about these (usually unspoken) differences is liberating for everyone, and always starts off a fascinating discussion of social expectations, and the way we can all challenge and exceed them.

But I’m also very aware that the children we meet are often handpicked as the brightest and most promising students in their class. Given the pressures on schools and teachers this is understandable. Plus, these students really are impressive, not just academically, but in their attitudes and enthusiasm, in their willingness to ask questions and say exactly what they think of a poem, to take risks and not be afraid to get it wrong. But what about the rest of the teenagers in that year 10 group? What were they doing that day? I never see them. I never have to convince them of the value of literature and university to their lives. Have some of them already made up their minds anyway? Or had their minds made up for them?

One way that university departments are trying to get around this issue is by meeting children even earlier. One fantastic example of this is PENCIL – a public engagement project between the universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds, local primary schools in West Yorkshire and other educational organisations. Another way is to work with community groups. A couple of years ago I was part of a small team of postgraduates who worked with Leeds Special Collections and the Leeds Library service on a pilot project called ‘Sharing Stories’. Three of us got to take Tony Harrison’s drafts and poems to the fantastically talented spoken word group Leeds Young Authors and work with them to produce their own creative responses to the issues raised in ‘Them and U[z]’. They then came up to the University to effectively add their own poems to the archive: Here’s a video of one of the responses: 

This was a fantastic opportunity to show these bright and talented young poets that their world didn’t have to be separate from their local university. A lot of them only lived three miles away, but until that moment they had never considered how the University might impact upon their daily lives, and vice versa. Now, their voices were part of the library, alongside famous writers, and they could hopefully begin to appreciate how valuable they were to the vibrant and varied identity of Higher Education.

These are just a few examples of how people in my University are trying, in a small way, to not only ask questions about exposure and engagement but to push at finding solutions. I don’t think anyone in the Higher Education system has all the answers. We could all still do more, find better ways to engage with everyone in the local community, get more children from different backgrounds into every university department across the UK. But like ‘Three Miles’ we are asking questions – of ourselves and of our system. Perhaps the one good thing about the rise in fees is that it has forced many universities to wake up and think harder than ever about how to make sure nobody misses out. I’ve seen people become more proactive and committed than ever before, not because they’ve been told to fill a quota, but because they genuinely care about equality, diversity and widening participation. Once students are here I hope that we instill in them the confidence that the University Heights students were missing. At the moment there’s still lots to do, but if the people around me are anything to go by, I’m cautiously optimistic.