Friday, 29 July 2011

Poetry in motion

Poetry's got a bad name. At least it has where I come from, which I can sort of understand because local poetry's pretty terrible. Not just poetry local to my home town but poetry local to anywhere. It's always amateurish, and usually about kittens and how this were all fields once but now is full of drugs and guns. I always feel bad criticising local poetry, when I find it printed in local papers next to the letters page. I feel like I'm poking fun at something a bit rubbish but essentially well-meaning, like the cheap market-stall trainers worn by a good but unstylish teacher on school non-uniform days. People who write this poorly scanning, self-consciously rhyming doggerel really value it. So I try not to be a snot about it.

I fail, though, every time. It's not personal. I don't have a crusade against middle-aged men and elderly women in local writers' groups, expressing themselves, getting the brief thrill of seeing their stuff in print. It's because I'm a perfectionist. I hate my own stuff, too. I pick it over, time and again, pulling apart lines, beating myself up over words, hoping that one day, by a sudden miracle, I'll wake up and find I've turned into Ivy Compton-Burnett or Alan Bennett. It hasn't yet, needless to say.

Plus, I love poetry in itself. It started with studying Hughes and Heaney at GCSE. I devoured everything of theirs I could, including their collection The Rattle Bag, which opened the door to WB Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca - the works. I read that stuff and I poured myself into it so much that I memorised so much of it. Through the hell of school (yes, you knew it, school was hell) I kept this stuff near me, like a Bible in the pocket of a Tommy in the trenches. I turned to it time and again, to make sense of the stuff that happened to me in my life, when so little of life seemed to make sense at all. I learnt to lean on that. You've got to have something to lean on, at least.

The thing is, like I say, poetry's out of fashion. I feel so old-fashioned. When my peers are there running to Rihanna, quoting Adele, when they need something, there's me, clutching on to a slim volume of Housman or Eliot. It's like a foreign culture - a huge, complexity of stuff that sits behind my experience, simultaneously soothing me and cutting me off from most of the other people I know. Take what you want and pay for it, says God.

Which is why I adored the poetry-loving eccentric Hector in The History Boys, who has something wondreful to say about reading: " The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

A hundred per cent, Hector. A hundred per cent.

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