A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest article by Simon Thomas, of Stuck in a Book.
Dear foxes and fox readers, I hate to be a downer in the middle of Poetry Week, but… oh, poetry. You and I aren’t friends. I would love to be the sort of person who quotes Wordsworth while wandering through fields of daffodils, quotes Wilfred Owen while visiting warfields, quotes Keats while wandering through, erm, a Grecian urn… but I am resolutely the sort who will quote Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare (the plays, you understand) etc. etc., but the nearest I get to mentioning poetry in everyday life is my favourite poetry-related joke, said of poor tennis players: they sometimes serve, but mostly stand and wait.
Can I explain why this is, I wonder? It’s like anything that one doesn’t like – it’s much more difficult to date than a moment of epiphany where one thinks “gosh, yes, I love scrapbooking / making choux pastry / crocheting hats for animals”, or whatever it may be. I’ve managed to get through English GCSE, A Level, undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and doctorate without my lightbulb moment. Well, that’s not quite true. I still have a few months left of my DPhil, so perhaps, before I become Dr Thomas, I’ll discover an unexpected love of Benjamin Zephaniah or Lord Byron.
But I love prose. I love drama – fairly often I read plays, so it’s not as though I’m simply reluctant to leave the safe confines of novels. I even love poetic language – I revel in the beautiful words of Virginia Woolf or the observant precision of Katherine Mansfield, but the moment the corner turns… I’m lost. I think my main problem is that I read too fast for poetry. It demands to be read slowly, preferably aloud… and I’m usually haring on to find out what happens. And then there is character – surely it is easier to experience the full creation of a character over 300 pages of prose than it is in a page of short lines? Unless we’re counting things like The Faerie Queene here. I read half that blinkin’ ‘poem’ once. I thought I might die. Perhaps I did. (I didn’t.)
Does it come with age? Will I hit 30 (or 40 or 50 or 80 or 90) and suddenly want to kick back in an armchair and read ‘Ozymandias’? There are a few poems I enjoy now – Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’ gives me chills, but I have no idea if it’s considered good verse or doggerel; I love many of the Psalms, but that’s wandering off into different territory – but I can’t imagine ever doing what the lead character of a novel I read recently did, which was (on her sick bed) request a big fat book of Victoria Verse. No, sirree. On my sick bed, give me E.M. Delafield or P.G. Wodehouse. Or just a nice big piece of cake and a cup of tea. But not poetry.
And yet I am one of those appalling people who don’t read poetry, but write it instead. There is probably a circle of hell for the likes of us. You’ll be pleased to know (perhaps) that I steer away from the free verse “Why does everyone misunderstand me?” variety of ‘poetry’ beloved by teenagers the world over (or, if I have ever written it, it’s staying locked away from prying eyes) – but I have tried to emulate the only form of poetry I ever find enjoyable. For while epic verse leaves me cold, and anything which mentions ‘bowers’ (i.e. everything Tennyson ever wrote) is blacklisted, I have a definite admiration for short, rhyming, comic verse.
Yes, I’m one of those people who ‘likes poems to rhyme’. Luckily I’m aware that I know precisely nothing about poetry appreciation, so I don’t pretend my standard is anything other than subjective. I enjoy hearing quick poetic quips, along the lines of Dorothy Parker (of “Men don’t make passes / At girls who wear glasses” fame, although she’s written better.) And recently, on my blog, I decided it would be fun to have a go at writing these for certain authors. Given my modus rhymerandi (that’s Latin, honest) I aim for humour, slightly biting but mostly affectionate. If you don’t mind a few Thomas originals glaringly out of place in a week that (I presume) will be featuring some of the world’s finest poets, then here are a few of the little snippets I came up with:
What the dickens?
Oh Charles, you saw
The humble poor
In such disarming detail –
But somehow missed
In all of this
A single real female.
If reading should be nourishment,
Your book’s not worth our time:
An awful lot of punishment
And hardly any crime.
*I have to admit that I’ve never read it…
Philip Larkin’s Legacy
Oh Larkin, yes, you swore; that’s fine.
But no-one knows the second line.
What’s troublin’ ya?
I am glum; something’s marred me.
Life is hard; I am Hardy.
So, I started by saying that I don’t really get poetry, and I ended by exposing some of my own. Oh dear. I’d love to hear some recommendations for the sort of poetry I can cope with – comic verse, particularly if it’s at all literary. And remember, everyone, poetry has to rhyme, capiche? (Here’s hoping Oxford University don’t read this, or they might not give me that doctorate after all…)
“Poetry” photo by V. H. Hammer of Flickr and shared here under a Creative Commons Licence. Clicking the image will load the source page.