A Lapwing in Poetry Magazine

c1986d390fb9d3369b1019acfadab0abf4829578

I’m pretty overjoyed to be starting 2020 with a long poem in Poetry, one of my favourite magazines, and a place I’ve been going to for treasure, new loves, teaching material and inspiration for as long as I’ve been reading and then writing poetry. My long poem, ‘Lapwing’, is published in full in the January 2020 issue, and is available to read online here.

‘Lapwing’ is one of the oddest poems I’ve written; odd because it seemed to break all the rules of drafting and editing that I recite to my students and myself. Most things I write go through countless drafts and versions. ‘Lapwing’, on the other hand, seemed to just fly into my ear full formed. The bird stayed for a week – long enough to write all twenty parts – and then just flew away one night without saying goodbye.

Let me know what you think.

lapwing-bird

 

Open and Various

A few months ago I had the lovely and strange experience of being interviewed by the Lauren Miller, Features Editor at MIRonline. This week the piece came out, and however weird it was to feel ‘on the record’, it was even stranger to read about myself. Lauren has done a great job of making me sound smart and nice – thank you! – but I’m also happy that my passion for poetry (in all its forms) and teaching has made it onto the page.

Lauren and I talked a lot about instagram poetry, new writing, and some of the ugly debates that have taken place over the question of what is good or even legitimate poetry. This is something i’ve been thinking about a lot this year, both in my teaching, where many of my students have come to poetry via instagram and writers such as Rupi Kaur, and through my own reading. In a couple of weeks my review of Geoffrey Hill’s posthumous collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin will come out in Stand Magazine, and there too the issue of contemporary poetry and its merits was an issue up for debate.

As you’ll see from my interview with Lauren, I stand firmly on the side of multiplicity. Poetry and publishing should be deliberately broad and various.

Here’s what I think:

New is good. Old is good. Instagram is good. Twitter is good. Books are good. Spoken word is good. Installations are good.  Reading is good. Rhyme is good. Free verse is good. Traditional forms are good. Experimentation is good. Collaboration is good. Reviews are good. Debate is good. All of these things can also be bad. That’s the beauty and the risk of them.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. This conviction has influenced and stayed with many of the poets I most admire. But if this is indeed true, surely we’ve got enough on our plate without also constantly trying to legislate each other as well.

Click here to read the MIRonline piece in full

Newborn poems

0139E984-A4A3-482B-85C7-B7AE875510A7

This morning I walked to the train station with a skip in my step. The sun was shining, my blow dry looked good, my toddler had recovered from her bout of chicken pox so was back at nursery, and I was back at work. All of these things made me happy.

But the real reason I was so bouncy on a cold Monday morning was that I had a new poem. Over the weekend, in between play dates, hoovering up broken crackers,  sponging up potty training accidents, and binge watching old episodes of Vera on ITV player, I sat down and began to give shape to an idea – or rather a voice – that’s been slowly growing in my head for the last few weeks.

As part of my bigger interest in pregnancy and birth through the ages, I’m currently gathering together examples of writers, artists and pioneers whose work, creativity, bodies, or even lives were profoundly affected or cut short due to their pregnancy and/or birth. I’ve been wanting to write about Mary Wollstonecraft for a while now, but have struggled to find the right way to explore the circumstances of her death, as well as the relationship that this inevitably has with her feminism, her writing, and her desire to minimise the power of the body. This painful and ‘gendered death’, as Vivien Jones puts it, is all the more painful because ‘it seems to defy so cruelly some of the most fundamental tenets of Wollstonecraft’s own feminism.’* And that tension, between the physical realities of her death of postpartum blood poisoning, and her wish to be seen as so much more than simply a female body, has made it hard to find the right words.

220px-Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)

So when the first draft did come, it felt like a victory. More than that though, I experienced that particular electric euphoria that can come with a first draft of a poem. Fittingly, it’s something akin to the euphoria of holding a newborn baby. You feel energised, alive, and amazed at what you’ve managed to create. With a newborn poem, you’re sure that this early draft is the best thing you’ve ever done. It’s perfect already, no more edits needed. This, you are sure, is going to be the making of you.

Come-and-Get-It

Luckily, I’ve been writing for long enough now to recognise the symptoms of this particular delusion. Painful workshops, cutting editorial comments, and the cold light of many new days have hardened me to the allure of a newborn poem. I know that it’s not perfect. Far from it. I may not be able to see its blemishes now, but I know that in a couple of days I’ll be able to view it with a more objective gaze. I’m almost scared of what I’ll find.

Time and experience have taught me how fundamentally important editing is. It has also shown me the difference a couple of days can make to any reading of your own work. As writers, we need both proximity and distance to our material in order to shape it. We also need to read the work of our contemporaries to recognise what a finished poem looks like, and to put us in our place when it comes to recognising our own strengths and shortcomings.

It’s nearly five now, and my blow-dry is flat, and I know that when I return to my Wollstonecraft draft I’ll probably hate it. However, just as I’m wary of the Newborn poem, I’m also kinder to myself in this dreaded come-down phase. When my toddler was only a few months old –  refusing to sleep, cranky, constantly glued to my boobs – one brilliant friend gave me the best piece of advice: ‘This too shall pass’. She was right. With each stage of having a baby there are new challenges, new highs, new lows.  Similarly, with any piece of writing – creative or academic, there are different stages to work through, different challenges and levels of energy, different moods and kinds of relationship between you and your creation. So although there is nothing quite like the rush of a newborn poem, I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s going to grow up to become.

 

 

References

*Vivien Jones, ‘The death of Mary Wollstonecraft’, British journal for eighteenth-century studies 20 (1997), p. 187.

 

Westminster here I am

images-5

I’ve never been very good at sharing news … even the really really good kind.

I’m just over one month into a new role at the University of Westminster. I’m so pleased to be able to say that I’ve joined the team in the School of Humanities as a Lecturer in Creative Writing (poetry)

More soon, but in the meantime it’s fair to say I’m still over the moon and pinching myself. I can’t believe my good fortune to be doing the job I love alongside such fantastic colleagues and students, and in such an exciting institution.



 

In praise of the community book club

Sit down and make yourself comfortable in the pub backroom/living room/restaurant/church/village hall/community centre/field/library space. Take that first sip of your beer/wine/gin/water/squash/coffee/tea/lemonade. Awkwardly riffle through the pages of your book and look at your scribbled notes in the margins. Turn to the person next to you, smile, and say hi. That’s right, the community book club is about to begin.

I can’t think of a much better way to meet and talk with strangers than a community book club. You start the night like you’d start a first date –  a bit awkward, a bit nervous, a bit self conscious – except that rather than checking your phone every five seconds you check your book. Then it kicks off, and you work up the courage to speak, to say a little something about your favourite character, or your favourite chapter, or even simply why you hated the damn book so much, and then you’re off and there’s no stopping you.

By the end this is like the best date you’ve ever been. Conversation is flowing. You’re bouncing ideas back and forth, finding things in common, sharing laughs. You feel smart, articulate, and good about yourself. And you can’t wait for your next meeting. Here though, you’ve begun to make twenty new friends, rather than just the one.

Yes, I’m pushing the analogy too far, but the point I’m trying to make is how important a part of local community book clubs are and could be. I’m not just talking about the kind where a small group of close friends meet to discuss books – although they are GREAT too. I’m talking about the kind that bring strangers and neighbours and different communities and multiple generations together in a room. The sort that invite these people to sit down together and chat and find common ground and celebrate their shared curiosity and imagination. The kind where you come away feeling smarter than when you walked in. In a world that can sometimes feel big and lonely, and after a day when you’ve spoken to people more over email and text than face-to-face, sitting in a circle with a group of interesting strangers with a drink in one hand and a book in the other can feel marvellous.

91k3cIBsWSL

 

This week I was lucky enough to run a community book club. It was the first one in the little town where I live, and I was honoured to be asked by the organisers to choose the book, think up some questions, and then lead the session. We had hoped that maybe four or five people might show. It was the first one after all, and we were advertising through local posters and in the library rather than over social media. In the end, there was nearly twenty five of us, all crammed into the backroom of a local pub. I’d chosen ‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson as our first text. This is not an easy book by any means. It is a slow read, and demands reflection and consideration. It is not action packed. In fact, hardly anything happens. There are large sections dedicated to considering lighthearted issues like the doctrine of predestination, Calvinism, dying, and forgiveness. I LOVE ‘Gilead’. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I come back to it again and again as an example of the kind of prose that breaks – or rather transcends – all the ‘rules’ of creative writing.  However, as the date for the book club drew closer, I worried that I might have scared some people away, or that everyone might struggle to find enough to say. I needn’t have worried. Although not everyone shared my love of the novel, every single person had something insightful to say. Members who had begun the evening quiet and withdrawn ended it in friendly debate, laughing, and on the edge of their seat waiting to respond to whatever point had just been made from across the room. Although it was a big number, it still felt intimate, and there was a chance for everyone to talk – whether in smaller groups or to the club as a whole. We were so into it that no one even thought about grabbing another drink. Great for us, not so great for the pub. In the end I had to cut the debate short for fear we’d be out too late on a work night. People left chatting, still talking about the book, with a visible spring in their step.

My one reservation about book clubs is that they can meander. Although you start with good intentions, without a structure to your conversation you end up running out of things to say quite quickly, and the conversation turns to work, tv, partners, and kids. For this reason I ran the book club quite like I would an undergraduate seminar (although no one got told off if they hadn’t finished the reading!). I wanted to get past the initial ‘I liked it because…’ and encourage people to really pick apart the plot, style, characters, and major themes. People might argue that this means it wasn’t a book club, but I’d defend the use of pre-set ‘things to think about’ and a book club leader. A good seminar is one of the absolute best things about studying literature at university. You leave feeling inspired, galvanised, smart, and impressed with yourself and your fellow students, Everyone should get to feel that. And everyone should get the chance to realise that they can have an intelligent, sustained, and satisfyingly challenging conversation with a group of strangers about any book. Sometimes it just really helps to have someone (and to could be anyone, take turns amongst your friends) guiding the conversation and inviting members to expand and develop their initial ideas.

So here’s an invitation to set up a community book club. Get in touch with a library to supply some books. Choose something that you think is smart and beautiful and challenging. Put up some posters. Find a free venue (church halls and pubs are great for this), think up some questions and go! Or if you don’t fancy doing all of that get me to come along. I’ll happily be there.

For our next book club meeting I’ve chosen ‘The Essex Serpent’. Now I just need to start prepping…

 

 

‘Haworth, 1855’: HG, Charlotte Brontë and winning the 2018 YorkMix Poetry Prize

When I was pregnant with my daughter Emmeline I was sick. I mean REALLY sick. I was one of the estimated 1 in 100 women who suffer from what’s known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum during pregnancy. It’s severe morning sickness, but that doesn’t quite do justice to how incapacitating, horrible, and for some, life threatening, it can be. And even better, I had it in varying degrees for the duration of those nine months, which made them feel interminable.

At the time I was working as a Teaching Fellow in English Literature at Leeds, but there was no way I could even get up and get to work, let alone read and lecture and teach. My colleagues were fantastic, and I was so lucky to have such a supportive department/faculty/HR team that understood and empathised, but still, it was devastating to have to leave a job I loved so much, and to feel my that (early) career was being put on hold nine months earlier than planned. As someone who needs to read and write, it was also so hard to not be able to even look at a book cover without throwing up. And when I wasn’t vomiting, I was so drugged up with anti-sickness medication that I could hardly talk. My partner was absolutely amazing throughout, but it can’t have been that fun coming home to a green zombie every night. I was so lucky though, to be surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and midwives who understood this illness, and who were able to help, and to have access to medication that kept things at bay enough to prevent severe dehydration and save me and my unborn child.

When I was about six months pregnant, and my cocktail of drugs was fine tuned enough to allow me one or two days a week of respite(ish), I started to try and write again, and specifically, to write about what it was like to have HG and those strange, dreamlike months, but I found it really hard to find the words. Then, while doing some background reading around ‘Jane Eyre’, I came across the story of Charlotte Brontë’s death and learnt that it was highly likely that this fantastic author – one of my favourites – had died due to HG. Although her cause of death was recorded as tuberculosis, many biographers have since speculated that it was actually dehydration and malnourishment that led to Charlotte Bronte’s death at the age of 38, when she was four months pregnant. Where I had benefitted from modern medicine, Charlotte had not.

IMG_5859

 

After that, it was her story and not my own that I wanted to tell, especially after reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s account of her final days:

‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up … Long days and longer nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness.’

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857

CBRichmond

That line – ‘I dare say I’ll be glad sometime’ – captures the hope bound up in pregnancy, even in the midst of severe illness and the loss of identity that comes with it. To know that for Charlotte, as for so many women who didn’t – and don’t – have access to medication and free healthcare – this time would never come makes it all the more poignant.

It was this line that formed the basis of my poem ‘Haworth, 1855’, and my attempt to articulate both the experience that Bronte would not have had the chance, or the ability, to record, and my own sense of what those months felt like, trapped in a body that no longer belongs to you.

The poem took a long time to write, and then I didn’t do anything with it for a while. Finally, on a whim, I entered it into the 2018 YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Prize, not expecting anything to come of it. I was therefore so surprised and excited to find out that Andrew McMillan, this year’s judge, had picked ‘Haworth, 1855’  as the winning poem.

DZMSKCYX4AA1vIo

It was great to go up to York and meet the other shortlisted, highly commended, and placed poets, and to listen to all the poems as we cruised along the river Ouse with the sun setting behind us. The quality was so high, and it was just a great evening. YorkMix have just published all the poems here, including ‘Haworth, 1855’, as well as a little write up of this story and a photo of me grinning from ear to ear.

I would love to hear what you think of the poem, and to hear how it matches up to your own experience. But I would also love to hear other stories of Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I don’t know how women many across the world, and across the centuries, have died of HG, and how many continue to die or lose or have to terminate pregnancies because of it. So far, the only other account I’ve come across (apart from Kate Middleton’s story, which I know I need to try and write about at some point!) is the brief mention of Megetia of Carthage in De miraculis sancta Stephani (thanks to the wonderful Perceptions of Pregnancy blog).

I’m looking for more though, as I’m working on a sequence of difficult pregnancies to build on Charlotte and Megetia. If you know of any other historical cases – speculated or confirmed – please get in touch and let me know about them.

Sleepless Reading

In the first few months after E’s birth I found it almost impossible to write. Life was full of profound (and funny, mundane, horrible, stressful, bewildering, ecstatic, beautiful) moments that seemed made for poetry, but I was too tired, hungry, busy, or frazzled to capture any of them. Although I was worried that I’d never feel like writing again, I was incredibly lucky to have some seasoned poet parents on hand to reassure me that things would calm down eventually. Happily, they were right.  But in the meantime, I just read as much as I could, using every feed, every little nap, and every sleepless night to make up for the ten months that I’d been starved of words.

Here are just a few of the books that I read and loved in those first few months. Some write beautifully about pregnancy, childbirth, and children, while others address climate change and environmental disaster, addiction and recovery, war, race and racism, class, gender and sexuality, loss and grief, love, and selfhood. Some are fiction, while others are poetry collections, essays, and prose. Some are new, while others are established classics. Some I’ve read before, and others are brand new discoveries. All are fantastic in their own way.

 thumbnail_IMG_5483

Karen McCarthy Woolf, Seasonal Disturbances

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

Margo Jefferson, Negroland

Sinéad Morrissey, Through the Square Window

Holly McNish, Nobody Told Me

Jon Silkin, Out of Battle

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Kayo Chingonyi, Kumukanda

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Julia Copus, The World’s Two Smallest Humans

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Clare Pollard, Incarnation

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Tiphanie Yannique, Wife

Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds

Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry

Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Denise Riley, Say Something Back

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light

This post should really be called ‘rest read when the baby rests’. When E was born every midwife, health visitor, family member, and seasoned parent gave this (very good) advice. I’m afraid I didn’t follow it. But I think reading also has fantastic restorative properties. For one thing it has the power to keep you sane, adult, and imaginative in those crazy first few months. It gives you something else to talk about in amongst the chat about nap routines and colic.

What other books should be on this list? Let me know the books that keep you company through sleepless nights – baby induced or otherwise.

Hannah x

Stopping and Starting

When I came to the end of my PhD and started as a Teaching Fellow I slowly stopped adding to this blog. Lecturing, writing, marking, moving, marrying – there was lots going on. Then, bam, I got pregnant, and extremely sick. Hyperemesis Gravidarum (or very severe morning sickness) left me completely debilitated for over 9 months. For most of that time I couldn’t even read a few words without throwing up and getting a migraine that would last for the rest of the day, if not longer. I subsisted on podcasts and the odd audiobook (although to be honest I was so drugged up with anti sickness medication that I couldn’t tell you what I listened to now). Contributing to this blog therefore felt a little bit impossible (plus, what would I have to talk about apart from the varying insides of toilet bowls?).

After that came the wonderful little one, and all the fun and craziness that goes with a new baby. I was reading again – it turns out that sleepless nights free up a lot of time for good novels and poetry collections – and writing and researching, but I couldn’t quite find the extra energy or articulacy to post anything.

Until now! I thought about starting again completely. New look, new name, new purpose. But I quickly realised that I was simply following the same impulse for a false fresh start that drives me to buy endless shiny new notebooks even though I’ve got hundreds of half-filled ones taking up space at home. So instead I’m sticking with what I’ve got, and am restarting this blog with these aims:

To write things about poetry and good writing

To write things about ways of reading poetry and good writing

To write things about good books in general

To write things about writing poetry

To write things about listening to poetry

To write things about performing poetry

To write things about research

To write things about teaching

To write things about competitions, submissions, magazines, events, workshops, and the ‘business’ of writing

To write things about whatever else crops up

 

Hannah x

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.