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A beginner’s guide to reading and enjoying poetry

Poetry doesn’t need to be meticulously studied. Like a novel, you can curl up on the sofa and read it for pleasure.

Andrew McMillan, Manchester Metropolitan University

One of the things you get asked most when people find out that you’re a poet is whether you can recommend something that could be read at an upcoming wedding, or if you know something that might be suitable for a funeral. For most people, these occasions – as well as their schooldays – are the only times they encounter poetry.

That feeds into this sense that poetry is something formal, something which might stand to attention in the corner of the room, that it’s something to be studied or something to “solve” rather than something to be lounged with on the sofa. Of course, this needn’t be true.

We’ve seen over the past couple of months how important poetry can be to people. It’s forming a response in advertisements and marketing campaigns, it’s becoming a regular part of the public’s honouring of frontline heroes and, for people who write poetry more often, it’s becoming a way to create a living historical document of these unprecedented times – this latter point was the aim of the new Write where we are Now project, spearheaded by poet Carol Ann Duffy and Manchester Metropolitan University.

In years to come, alongside medical records and political reporting, historians and classes of schoolchildren will look to art and poetry to find out what life was like on a day-to-day basis – what things seemed important, what things worried people, how the world looked and felt and was experienced. Write where we are Now will, hopefully, be one such resource, with poets from all over the world contributing new work directly about the Coronavirus pandemic or about the personal situations they find themselves in right now.

So the crisis has perhaps brought poetry – with its ability to make the abstract more concrete, its ability to distil and clarify, its ability to reflect the surreal and strange world we now find ourselves in – back to the fore.

Many of you might be thinking now is the time to try and get to grips with poetry, maybe for the first time. A novel might feel too taxing, watching another film just involves staring at another screen for longer, but a poem can offer a brief window into a different world, or simply help to sustain you in this one.

How to enjoy poetry

If you’re nervous around poetry or are scared it might not be for you, I wanted to offer up some tips.

1. You don’t have to like it

Poetry is often taught in very strange ways: you’re given a poem and told that it’s good – and that if you don’t think it’s good then you haven’t understood it, and you should read it again until you have, and then you’ll like it. This is nonsense. There are poets and poems for every taste. If you don’t like something, fine. Move on. Find another poet. Anthologies are great for this, and a good place to start with your poetry journey.

2. Read it aloud

Poetry lives on the air and not on the page, read it aloud to yourself as you walk around the house, you’ll get a better understanding of it, you’ll feel the rhythms of the language move you in different ways – even if you’re not quite sure what’s going on.

3. Don’t try and solve it

This is something else that goes back to our educational encounters with poetry – poems are not riddles that need solving. Some poems will speak to you very plainly. Some poems will simply move you through their language. Some poems will baffle you but, like an intriguing stranger, you’ll want to step closer to them. Poems aren’t a problem to be wrestled with – mostly poems are showing you one small thing as a way of talking about something bigger. Poems aren’t a broken pane of glass that you need to painstakingly reassemble. They’re a window, asking you to look out, trying to show you something.

4. Write your own

The best way to understand poetry is to write your own. The way you speak, the street you live on, the life you’ve lived, is as worthy of poetry as anything else. Once you begin to explore your own writing, you’ll be able to read and understand other people’s poems much better.

Read more:
Eavan Boland: the great Dublin poet and powerful feminist voice

I would say this as a poet, but poetry is going to be even more central to how we rebuild after this current crisis. Poetry, especially the teaching of how we might write it, has this wonderful ability to create a new language, to imagine new ways of seeing things, to help people to articulate what it is that they’ve just been through. The way we move forward, as a community, as a society and, in fact, as a civilisation, is to push language to new frontiers, to use language to memorialise, reimagine and rebuild, but also to remember that poetry can be an escape, something to be enjoyed, something to cherish.

With that in mind here is a poem I wrote for Write where we are Now.The Conversation

Andrew McMillan, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Eavan Boland: the great Dublin poet and powerful feminist voice

Adam Piette, University of Sheffield

The death of poet Eavan Boland comes as a soft shock to my sense of the world. The creative connections she forged between her richly various poetry, Irish culture and the fierce determinations of feminism were mesmerising. Just as important was her faith in poems as places to think and feel in, where those connections could be offered as intricate gifts to all readers.

She is rightly celebrated for her breakthrough collection, the 1980 In Her Own Image, which pitted itself against the lazy assumptions of a male-dominated poetry world and voiced the bitter extremes of female experience, like the anorexic’s fanaticism (“Flesh is heretic./ My body is a witch. / I am burning it”), the beaten wife’s survivalist plural selving (“I was not myself, myself”), the menstrual visionary (“I leash to her {the moon}, / a sea, / a washy heave, / a tide”), the crazy poetics of the kitchen (“the tropic of the dryer tumbling clothes. / The round lunar window of the washer”).

A true challenger to Yeats

Such poems gave centre stage to female experiences and had a huge impact on the Irish poetry scene in particular, which had taken its time responding to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Eavan Boland in 1996.

Their accurate representation of the marginalisation of women in history and by history (“still no page / scores the low music / of our outrage” It’s a Woman’s World, 1982) was belied by the poems as public and historical voices. A feminist collection, In Her Own Image showed the world that Boland’s was a powerful voice above all and a real challenge to the Yeatsian tradition of male poetics in Ireland.

The wonderful Mise Eire (1987), meaning “I am Ireland”, for instance, takes on the identity of the many emigrant women travelling from Ireland to the New World, and opens:

I won’t go back to it

my nation displaced

into old dactyls

and the poem is colourfully detailed about the historical record, as routines being played by Boland:

I am the woman –

a sloven’s mix

of silk at the wrists,

a sort of dove-strut

in the precincts of the garrison

The ancestral women whose being she inherits through her matriarchal line and her Irish identity, women under the control of the old dispensation, the women of Irish patriarchal history, molls to the men of power – that is what she won’t go back to. So what reads as a rich imagining of the emigrant glad to be leaving is also Boland’s coded challenge to the Irish lyric tradition with its old dactyls and assumptions about women poets as strutting doves; as well as a specific historical voicing of second-wave feminism – we are not going back to that old world.

Returning to Dublin

On the back of the extraordinarily febrile mind at work on her own culture and in concert with the feminism of her times, she built up a repertoire of voices that constitute some of the finest poetry in English.

Navigating between work in America and a full life in Ireland, she lived out that emigrant dream and made it real, made it her world. Her poems are intimately connected to the dailiness of her own life, to a sense of significances and exfoliations in the ordinary events in her patch of space and time. Equally, she writes poems of extraordinary power and complexity about the history of Ireland, about the Famine, the Troubles (the three-decade conflict between nationalists and unionists), about the acts of violence suffered by her people over time.

She was unafraid to make poetry do the work that once was most resolutely its task: the work of elegy, epic (her lyrics attend to history with the eye of an epic poet), lyric most of all and testimonial witnessing of experience with heart and mind.

For me, one of her tasks was to be the poet of Dublin, the Dublin she loved and cherished, and fought for and against too. Many of her very best poems bring that fabled city to new light. Her poem Anna Liffey (1997), which tussles with James Joyce’s representation of the female principle Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, is also a hymn of praise to Dublin’s river Liffey:

It rises in rush and ling heather and

Black peat and bracken and strengthens

To claim the city it narrated.

Again, subtly, it is a woman’s story-telling (Anna Liffey narrating) that lays claim to this new post-feminist Dublin. Born abroad, she adopted Dublin as an émigré Irish returnee – but that journey home was also this complex act of kinship and claim:

It has taken me

All my strength to do this.

Becoming a figure in a poem.

Usurping a name and a theme.

Thank goodness for her usurpation! Such a harvest of gifts, as well.

In the incomparably beautiful And Soul (2007), Dublin’s rain is praised at the same time as Boland is battling the cloudburst of her grief for her dying mother. In The Lost Land (1998), her daughters growing up and living faraway reprise her whole life story (“memory itself / has become an emigrant”). Nobody has written so fully and well about the intimate relationship between Ireland and the United States. Ireland has lost its most exquisite chronicler:

In the end

everything that burdened and distinguished me

will be lost in this:

I was a voice.The Conversation

Adam Piette, Professor of Modern Literature, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.