Thursday, 25 March 2010

Well Versed?

Since I’ve been blogging, it hasn’t escaped my attention that there are many fine poets out there. That, in itself, doesn’t really surprise me. But why do so many of us choose poetry as a means of expression?

My guess is, we opt for poetry because it’s something we’ve been conscious of from before we learned to speak. We probably heard our first verses as babes in arms, and became acquainted with the sounds and rhythms of the traditional nursery rhyme.

I was thinking of the very first poem I heard at school. It was this one, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

A birdie with a yellow bill
Hopped up on the window sill,
Cocked his shining eye and said:
'Ain't you 'shamed, you sleepy-head?'

It stayed in my head for weeks and, was so much on the tip of my tongue, I would recite it without warning. So in an effort to fuel my enthusiasm, my mum bought me Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’, illustrated by Hilda Boswell. Throughout my childhood, it was a treasure. A heady combination of beautifully painted pictures and words, guaranteed to take the hand of an imaginative boy and lead him in and out of unfamiliar landscapes and situations.

In turn, I passed it on to our daughter, and it now resides on the bookshelf, ready for the attention of our three granddaughters.

Oddly, after that initial rush in my early years poetry, for me, languished in a kind of literary backwater. I simply lost interest in the act of reading it. Perhaps it was over-prescribed in the curriculum. I hardly read any 'grown-up' poetry throughout my remaining schooldays, although I never stopped flirting with the idea of writing it. Later, it would become a comfort, a kind of antidote to the interminable boredom of factory shifts. I remember a supervisor raising an eyebrow at the jottings on my stock-keeping record sheets. 

Unlike my dear, late grandmother, who could recite James Henry Leigh Hunt’s ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ and much of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ at the drop of a hat, I rarely have the inclination to commit poetry to memory. Even the most poignant lines and phrases struggle to be called up at will, no matter how highly I value them, no matter how moving they are to me.

So, I have a complex relationship with poetry as a form of expression. Maybe that’s not so unusual.

One thing's for certain, poetry is in us and around us. A friend once commented, “..poetry is a big house with plenty of room for everyone..” He went on to state, “I like my poetry dense, linguistically ambitious and inventive..”

How do you take yours?

© 2010, copyright Martin T. Hodges


  1. An interesting post based around an interesting question - why do so many write poems? I have to confess that I have tried - but with little success. I have come to the conclusion that it is a bit like crossword puzzles - you can either do them or you can't.

  2. Hi Martin

    I suppose that as children we are captivated by the rhyme and the rhythm of verse in addition to the subject matter...I have many AA Milne poems committed to memory because my primer 4 (year 2)teacher read to us each day before lunch.
    Later it was the abstruse and the provocative thoughts that appealed to me. Today I think I love poetry for its ability to transport you to another place in consciousness through the succinct and simple, through metaphor and symbol as well as choice of words.

    As for writing poetry I do enjoy the brevity of Haiku and the other forms of short verse that Dan has been introducing us to: the tanka, cinquain, tetractys, quatrain and most recently the etheree.

    Happy days
    Happy days

  3. I've wondered about this and I can't remember a time when I didn't want to write. As a family we read a lot and I learned early the rewards (laughter, approval) of saying something clever or funny. For years the only two poetry books I owned were my dad's old 'Penguin Book of Comic and Curious Verse' and Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Ever since I have tried to bridge the vast and fascinating middle ground between 'Henry, Who Chewed Bits of String...' and 'On the Tombs of Westminster Abbey.'

  4. I love the quote about poetry being a big house. I've always loved poetry -- still have my copy of A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSE. I can still recite many many poems -- ABOU BEN ADHEM among them -

    I'm coming a little late to modern verse -- my friend Kay Byer (past North Carolina Poet Laureate) has introduced me to much that is excellen on her blog, HERE< WHERE I AM.

  5. My grandmother used to read a lot of the Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley to me as a very young girl. And I still have my beloved pink copy of Poems to Read and to Learn.

    I'm revisiting the "Big House", since my children are grown and I have more time and space.

  6. Oh, we love "A Child's Garden of Verse," and some of my earliest memories are of grandma reciting the poems to me.

    I have always loved reading poetry, and we have an extensive collection at home. My husband and I, out of college, worked as editors of poetry anthologies, one of my most enjoyable jobs (especially since I got to work in the same room as Sarge, reading poetry all day for pay!)

    But I rarely ever attempt it myself, anymore...

    A very interesting post.

  7. Lovely post, Martin.

    I believe poetry speaks to something innate in us. We turn to it at moments of high emotion: deaths, births, celebrations. It gives us the tools to express our grief or joy that ordinary language finds impossible.

    As for poetry being like crosswords: the more I practise a particular crossword, the better I get at it. I got TWENTY FIVE clues in last Saturday's Times Jumbo Crossword. The moral being practise, practise, practise and a poem will out!

  8. Alan

    I suppose it can depend whether you're writing for yourself or a wider audience. But I know a number of people who have reached the same conclusion as you.


    "..I love poetry for its ability to transport you to another place in consciousness through the succinct and simple, through metaphor and symbol as well as choice of words." So well put.


    Like you, I can't remember a time when I didn't want to write. Interesting that you only owned a couple of poetry books for years. Perhaps some of us are simply more inclined towards writing than reading.


    You would have got on well with my grandmother. I, on the other hand, must pay a visit to Kay's blog.


    Re-visiting the 'big house' sounds good. Remember to explore all the rooms.


    That's a shame that you rarely attempt to write poetry anymore. But it sounds as though you have plenty to read on your bookshelves.


    I do believe that poetry is both in us and around us. Whatever we do, we shouldn't ignore it. I like what you say in your first paragraph, "It gives us the tools to express our grief or joy that ordinary language finds impossible."

  9. My sister and I used to recite poetry while we washed and dried the dishes. "Time to Rise" was in our repertoire, along with others from Stevenson, like "I Have a Little Shadow," "How Do You Like to Go Up in a Swing" and "When I Was Sick and Lay Abed." We used to attempt "Little Orphant Annie" from James Whitcomb Riley and "The Highwayman" from Alfred Noyes, but we could never quite get the whole things. At that time I was in love with the sound of poetry. Today I love poetry that is clear but still has little puzzles to figure out or surprise us.

  10. This was an interesting post. I feel I'm most often hearing talk of there not being enough poetry in the world, why so little poetry, poetry is a dying form, etc. It was nice to see it differently through your eyes. I'm not sure if I find poetry to be abundant or sparse, in general. I do know that I always seem to find just what I need. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  11. Denise - Sometimes I fear that, in a time when people often need to to express themselves, perhaps poetry is an overlooked medium, for a host of reasons. Like you, I seem to find just what I need, but where that need isn't fulfilled, I'm finding it much easier to write my own. Thank you for dropping by.


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