Wednesday, 28 October 2009

What is poetry for?

I was lucky enough to hear Tom Leonard read his poems a few weeks ago - the second time I heard him. The reading ending with questions and someone asked what started him off writing poems. I didn't expect him to mention Stephen Spender. But he did. He spoke of finding an exam paper in the school playground when he was 15 or 16 and on that paper he read Spender's poem "The Express." Tom Leonard mentioned that his father worked on the railway so he took an interest in the subject. But I wonder if he'd have been so interested in the poem if he'd encountered it in a classroom or exam.

I had some wonderful teachers who loved poetry and did their best to convey that love. (I also had one dreadful teacher who achieved the remarkable feat of making me dislike Hamlet). I've also tried to teach poetry within the English syllabus. It's an exciting and infuriating task because the teaching of poetry tends to talk round the central questions of what poetry is and what it is for.

If you're studying poetry for an exam, every poem turns from a thing of wonder to an object which must be interpreted, analysed and defined. I recall how, when I was in the the 6th form, my fascination with the poetry of John Donne was overshadowed by the question of what constituted "a conceit" and how I should write about the poetry in an essay. The thrilling oddness of Donne's images was smoothed away by the need to explain them in neat paragraphs about compasses, the opening up of the "new world" and so on. I was lucky that the craft elements of poetry were taught with encouragement to try things out - at least I learnt about metre, rhythm, cadence and form by writing rather than, as so many of today's students do, by a mechanical process of counting syllables and memorising Greek-derived terms.

I wouldn't condemn analysis of imagery, content, politics, craft, etc. - they are all enjoyable parts of the experience of poetry. But they aren't the main part and they don't answer the question of what poetry is for. Academic study of poetry often aims for a total solution - to explain away everything. But I don't believe any poet who has just finished writing a poem thinks, "Oh good! I've just written a wonderful set text" or longs to be set in an exam.

League tables and the need to measure degrees of success can easily limit the way in which poetry is read. "What does that image mean?" students are asked, "Can you identify the metre?" or "What is the poem's political perspective?" While the most sensitive and sophisticated response might confess uncertainty, students learn young that there are right or wrong answers and that a poem, like a quadratic equation, is there to be solved. Its component parts are pegged out and labelled and its political stance is subjected to praise or blame. Any pleasure gained prior to a solution is treated as purely incidental.

In most seminar rooms or classrooms, there's someone who ventures the opinion that a poem means whatever the reader thinks it means. It doesn't, of course. Wordsworth's daffodils remain yellow spring flowers however you happen to see them. The reader who think that daffodils looks like gladioli or Martians is making a serious mistake. And yet that insistence on the importance of the reader does say something important: it resists the stock definition that "solves" the poem and recognizes a transaction between the words on the page and the reader for whom they are meant.

I took a series of seminars and asked students to find poems they liked which puzzled them - poems that resisted an easy analysis or solution. And then I asked the students what they liked about those poems. They were hesitant at first - afraid of giving wrong answers or sounding silly. But as I scribbled their answers down, I realised we were getting closer to the answer of that impossible question "what is poetry?" And the answers were a helpful reminder that poetry isn't there so that people can pass exams - it's there to be enjoyed.

Here are some of the things students liked about poems:

- the sound of poems
- the way poems sing
- the way poems look on the page
- simple images
- seeing things in a different way for the first time
- playing with words and forms
- mystery
- the sense that there's a deeper meaning that can't quite be reached
- snatches of sense
- concentration
- weirdness
- unfamiliar words
- not understanding
- the puzzle

Students started to remember the way poetry seemed to them when they were very young. They recalled nursery rhymes, nonsense verses and magical, powerful words that they didn't fully understand - like swearing. We were, at least, on the edge of finding out what poetry was for, even if we couldn't quite define it.

At it's best, for me at least, poetry is to do with lasting wonder and the kind of mystery evoked by W.S. Graham's poems "What is the Language Using Us For?" When I read the first stanza of the first poem while browsing in a bookshop, I knew this was magic. I was swept into the mystery of the words:

What is the language using us for
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

You can read the rest of this poem - and the others in the sequence - here.

I don't want to stop and analyse the poems - I want to read and revel in them. An analysis would merely skirt round the edges. I could learn about the W.S. Graham's craft as a poet - and that would be useful - but the mystery would remain. The most apt response isn't an academic essay but closer to "Wow! I want to read that again," or even, "I want to learn that by heart."

Schools and universities are right to teach skills of analysis and puzzle-solving. But they run the risk of being constrained by what is easily tested and measurable. You can't grade students on the enthusiasm with which they say "Wow!" or give them marks for saying that a poem is an insoluble mystery. Yet their sense of awe and mystery may be as close as any of us gets to understanding the nature of poetry.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Back to the blog

It wasn't swine flu. I didn't have the cough or the sudden high temperature. It was just the usual sort of autumn virus.

For a week or so, everyone except me seemed to have a virus so it wasn't surprising that I succumbed. It wasn't a good time. Taking time off work would have placed an impossible strain on colleagues, who were also working while ill. And adrenalin got me through the last week and a half, though not as successfully as I would have liked. Last Saturday involved six hours of non-stop talking, which became croaking and finally a hoarse whisper. At home everyday tasks like loading the washing machine or putting out the wheelie bin required sustained concentration. Away from work, I didn't go out or blog. Instead I huddled pathetically in an ill-made bed, grateful when the cat purred on the pillow beside me.

Every so often I noticed a subject for a blog. "I must write that down," I thought, but didn't. It seems a little late for my thoughts on the forthcoming government by the Bullingdon boys. I'd have liked to discuss the background to the postal strike and the need for a national, well-managed mail service but an article appeared with more knowledge and thought than I could provide. Others have written well on the recent political impact of Twitter. I managed a couple of tweets myself, mentioning Berlusconi, Blair and Jean Sarkozy. I felt old.

Meanwhile, I noticed reports on the economy. Some people said the crisis was over. Others predicted a steep rise in unemployment. Goldman-Sachs, which took public money, gave a lot of it to its employees in bonuses and was startled that anyone should object. Politicians competed in the savagery of the cuts they promised, assuming that voters would elect the candidate who threatened most jobs and the swiftest sell-off of public assets and resources. And every so often I met someone I knew who was threatened with redundancy or had lost a job.

Commentators assume there's a sharp line dividing those with jobs from those without. They assume the employed will spend until the economy surfaces from recession. I doubt that's the case. People live in families and circles of friends. Surely we'll help families and friends to purchase necessities before we head out on the extravagant spending binge urged by economists? That's enough to bring down a society built on debt and the sale of services and luxury goods.

Perhaps it's time to tear up the old model and start again. But where do we go from here? Can we really progress through co-operation when hatred and bitter competition have grown so strong?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Goose Fair unvisited

I learnt about Goose Fair on my first visit to Nottingham, twenty-one years ago. The traffic jams were the first clue that something was going on. "Goose Fair," locals explained, and later, leaving Nottingham, I gazed at the huge expanse of fairground lights and wished I were among the crowds clutching bags, purses, toys, balloons and children as they swarmed around the vast site.

No-one is quite sure of the origins of Goose Fair. A book from the 1930s comments snootily that it is "not of any high antiquity, for the earliest mention of it is in 1541." People in Nottingham know that's rubbish. The fair celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1994 - I was there with my parents and children. More recently, writers have suggested it's more than 1,000 years old. It won't be long before someone establishes that it was set up by Druids or visited by Alfred the Great or Julius Caesar. But in fiction it was certainly visited by Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which captures some of the wildness.

My mum didn't see the point of fairs - all that money for a short ride when you could buy a good book or a theatre ticket instead. But I loved the thrills, the garish prizes, the crowds, the shouting, the smells and the tastes of fairground food. I don't think I've ever bought the Nottingham speciality of "cocks on sticks," usually bought with a giggle from a stall-holder who was bored with the joke years ago and is more concern with the quality of the lurid confections. But it was at Goose Fair that I discovered the joys of hot mushy peas, seasoned with pepper and mint sauce and eaten from a small tub.

It's proper Goose Fair weather today: cold, windy with the possibility of rain. Sometimes the crowd stomp and teeter through mud to the cakewalk, the gallopers, the big wheel, the hook-a-duck stalls and all the other rides and games of chance. Bad weather is no excuse for missing Goose Fair though it drives many to the Scouts' simple brick building where the sale of tea and sandwiches to sheltering crowds probably funds activities for the following year.

I'd like to go to Goose Fair again though I no longer have the excuse of taking children. I can hardly take a tall 18-year-old to hear the ringing of the Goose Fair bell or suggest he hold my hand if he's scared by the rush of the Magic Mouse or the neon skeletons of the ghost train. Perhaps next year I'll take my camera again or see if a friend wants to experience the rides. This year it would definitely be unwise. I've pulled a muscle and don't want to risk the pain of jostling crowds or further damage that might be caused by the attempt to maintain my balance on the jiggling of the cakewalk. Tying my shoelaces is quite bad enough though I'm surprised to discover that attempting to stab people with an epee turns out to be an almost pain-free experience.

Perhaps next year I'll find time to go on the quiet first afternoon, when rides are cheaper. I may even stop at one of the fortune-telling booths in the neighbouring front gardens - not because I believe in fortune-telling but because I'm uneasy about the rules banning fortune-tellers from the Goose Fair site. When I first moved to the East Midlands, people said openly that gypsies weren't allowed on the Goose Fair site. The current rules simply say that fortune-telling and character-reading are banned.

The wind is getting stronger - it just threw one of the wheelie bins to the ground. I reckon I'll be warmer and more comfortable indoors - and I have the fifth Thursday Next book to finish.