It is National Poetry Day. But apparently the Brits are not very poetic. Too Anglo-Saxon to enjoy bearing their souls, the Brits are frightened of being considered soppy.
But does poetry have to be soppy? Rhyming is in our biology. Young children adore rhyme and come to it naturally. Poetry is all around us. Songs from childhood, pop music, Broadway shows, hymns, all these contain poetry. At what point then do we shy away from that formal word with a capital letter: Poetry? What causes the shift from loving words that sound the same, words that sound like their meanings and making extended metaphors? I adore poetry and always have. I love Shakespeare’s clever use of language, mainly through iambic pentameter, as a result of which I like to write sonnets, but many people would disagree with me. School doesn’t help. Having poetry, and especially Shakespeare, rammed down the throat and having to tear it to shreds, analyse it to extinction, does it no favours.
Is it as simple as that? Does education destroy something innate or is that in the past? Is school better these days? Are children taught to enjoy the way words trip off the tongue or are they still asked to analyse what might have been in the poet’s mind when he wrote it?
I have trouble with the poetry of Robert Frost because a teacher made us rip it to bits line by line, asking what each was about, attempting to find out how we felt about the use of each word and why it might have been chosen.
Years ago, I remember watching Melvin Bragg interviewing Tom Sharpe. OK, he’s not a poet, but Melvin Bragg was determined to make something of Sharpe’s book – Riotous Assembly. He asked the question: what was in your mind when you wrote this? He then proceeded to suggest what might have been the prompt for this extremely odd, slightly rude and very funny book.
“Of course, you had in mind the apartheid regime in South Africa.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Tom Sharpe.
“Well, obviously the scene with the policeman in latex indicated blah, blah, blah….”
“No, it didn’t.”
Melvin Bragg pushed hard. He tried his best to link the oppressive regime into the plot of the book, but Sharpe would have none of it.
“No,” he insisted. “I had the idea for the book. I needed the money. I wrote it for the joy of writing it and for the money.”
And why not?
Poetry, like all writing, is written for different reasons. Sometimes it does have political purposes, or it may express the strong emotions of death, war or love. But just as often, it spills from our very beings, from the sheer joy of hearing words form inside our heads, of writing those words onto a page. Better, we love hearing those syllables uttered by someone who can give them life, someone who can lend drama to our ideas.
It can rhyme or not, it can fit a standard form, or not. It can express a single important idea or be a flippant comment on your day. The choices are yours. So today, National Poetry Day, why not give it a whirl?