Vulpes Libris

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.

Simon Thomas on failing with poetry

Guest article by Simon Thomas, of Stuck in a Book.

poetryShall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  Er, actually, I’d rather you didn’t.

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.

19 comments on “Simon Thomas on failing with poetry

  1. Lisa
    June 10, 2013

    I loved this, Simon. Had me chuckling throughout. I have similar feelings about poetry.

    (But there was me thinking the line went: “Girls will make passes at boys with nice asses…” No? 😉 )

  2. conor
    June 10, 2013

    Try Philip Larkin’s ‘A Study of Reading Habits’. You might think it captures you perfectly. It’s something to do with your diet.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    June 10, 2013

    Lovely post Simon – I think personally that speed may be the key because I’m a fast reader too and I often don’t *get* poetry until it is read to me at a sensible speed!

  4. Ludo
    June 10, 2013

    I guess we are just not much used to poetry. In Italy we study a bit of poetry in class, but we tend to read novels at home for homework, Dante and Virgil being two relevant exceptions.

    As for some suggestions, try with early Ghoete love poems and Pietro Aretino. They probably do not rhyme in English, but it is pretty straightforward poetry.

  5. Kate
    June 10, 2013

    I liked this so much! But my tip for you, Mr T, is audiobooks! I only managed to see what the Milton-worshipping fuss was about when I listened to Paradise Lost (while knitting), and it was FAB. Ditto The Faerie Queene (that spelling is so off-putting …).Or take a poem apart to see why it sticks together … and when you’ve examined its innards, it’ll be so much more accessible. Maybe a bit squishy too. Edith Sitwell’s poetry is amazing when taken apart because you can hear and see the extraordinary things she does with sound while they make no sense at all on the surface.

  6. Jackie
    June 10, 2013

    This was hilarious! And even though I like poetry a lot, it was an amusing explanation of what so many people don’t like about the art form.
    May I suggest you try Edward Lear, who writes eccentrically comic poems or Robert Frost, who rhymes, and often has subtle humor.
    That’s for starting off the week with a laugh!

  7. Simon T
    June 10, 2013

    Thanks everyone for your lovely comments, and for your suggestions! I must read more Lear, the Larkin sounds fascinating, and WHAT a brilliant idea about audiobooks! I do so love writing pieces for the foxes 🙂

  8. Clare
    June 11, 2013

    Hmm. Poetry: to like or not to like – is that the question? I wonder why, with poetry, a person has to commit to liking (or not) an entire genre. I’m as much a fan of prose as you are but I can’t say I love every word of prose ever committed to posterity, not by a very long chalk. Odd isn’t it how we’re allowed to pick and choose which prose we like but poetry seems to be a zero sum equation, even though it encompasses writers as diverse as, to take a random example, Adrian Mitchell and William Wordsworth. Mitchell’s Celia Celia is one of my favourite poems but you’d be well into triple figures on my list of ‘Poems I Like’ before you found anything by Wordsworth. Even within the work of one author I pick and choose. So, no, don’t compare me to a summer’s day. Don’t compare me to anything. Let’s flip the pages to Sonnet 130 instead where Shakespeare conjures a woman for us so real you could touch her – a woman who “when she walks treads on the ground” and isn’t some flowery fantasy high up on a pedestal. Drafty places, pedestals. (By the way, if you’re reading Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes you’re reading verse aren’t you? Shhh, don’t tell anyone.) Thank you for a most thought-provoking post. I like your poems – especially the one about Dickens. P.S. No-one has ever read The Faerie Queene in its entirety except Edmund Spenser. And I have my doubts about him.

  9. rosyb
    June 11, 2013

    Simon, you are such a breath of fresh air. Your Larkin piece is particularly fine!

  10. Sally Tarbox
    June 11, 2013

    I pretty much agree, Simon, especially over-the-top Byronesque kind of poetry.
    Re: comic verse, have you ever come across the wonderful ‘Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes’ ? Features such delights as:

    I was playing golf the day that the Germans landed;
    All our troops had run away, all our ships were stranded;
    And the thought of England’s shame
    Altogether spoilt my game.


    When Baby’s cries grew hard to bear
    I popped him in the Frigidaire.
    I never would have done so if
    I’d known that he’d be frozen stiff.
    My wife said ‘George, I’m so unhappy,
    Our darling’s now completely frappe.’

  11. Clarissa Aykroyd
    June 12, 2013

    For someone who doesn’t like poetry, your humorous poetry is pretty clever and enjoyable – actually, it would also be that if you were an unashamed poetry lover!

    Poetry can be an acquired taste that takes time to acquire – but really, it’s for everyone. For reluctant poetry readers, I recommend the wonderful anthologies by Bloodaxe – Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human. Quality poetry that’s also accessible. They will suck you in!

  12. SamRuddock
    June 12, 2013

    I’m drawn to this poem, ‘Introduction to Poetry’ by Billy Collins. Why must we always have to understand poetry? Why not, just for the hell of it, experience it emotionally and viscerally as we do prose.

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

  13. judisutherland
    June 12, 2013

    It’s kind of deplorable that you’ve got as far as you have with such a rudimentary knowledge of poetry. It’s nothing to boast about. If you are in Oxford, especially, there’s lots going on. Take a look at the Albion Beatnik’s Facebook page, check out Hammer and Tongue.If you insist on comedic and rhyming poems, get started readingWendy Cope and Sophie Hannah. Read Ian McMillan. You may find after a while you are able to move on to other contemporary poets. If so, use the Internet, take a look at the blogs And Other Poems and Ink Sweat and Tears. Come over to the Dark Side. Live the examined life.

  14. Simon T
    June 12, 2013

    I hope it’s ok for me to reply to a few comments! I should have done for the first lot, but my generic happy comment will suffice.

    Clare – you put forward such interesting points! It’s true, isn’t it, that many people (like me) treat poetry as a whole where we wouldn’t dream of doing so about prose. Of course, my article was rather tongue-in-cheek, but your point still stands. And you picked the only sonnet I really loved when I read them… so I feel like we’re on the same wavelength already.

    Rosy – thanks very much 😀

    Sally – I haven’t, but I adore those passages you quote, so I am definitely going to hunt it out. Could you have converted me?

    Clarissa – that’s so nice of you to say, Clarissa! I shall add those titles to my wishlist, and see if they work…

    Sam – what an excellent argument against the way poetry is often examined… something to mull on, definitely.

    Judi – I’m going to assume you didn’t mean to be so rude! Maybe that’s what happens when something one cherishes is treated with some disregard… but I have to say your comment made me less eager to become a poetry-lover than anything else I’ve ever experienced!

  15. Moira
    June 13, 2013

    Simon … Lovely piece, as always – funny, self-deprecatory and everso slightly tongue in cheek. You should definitely try Harry Graham.

    Poetry is, of course, a very personal thing – not to mention a very tricky one to master, and I detect that you have a talent for it, whether you want one or not.

    Rhyming poetry that doesn’t work descends into doggerel, while free verse that doesn’t work is just prose that doesn’t reach the edges of the page … And there is an AWFUL lot of that around.

    By the way – under NO circumstances consider living the examined life, unless – of course – you want to end up humourless and graceless.

  16. Hilary
    June 13, 2013

    Simon, that is a great piece! I did so enjoy it, thank you. You could have written it for me, too, though in recent years I’ve reined back on saying how little poetry does for me, having realised just how much of the stuff has found its way round what I thought was my mental block. I detect between the lines of your piece that it could be the same for you too, perhaps … I’m not assuming anything rudimentary about your store of poetry, just that you are expressing your personal taste, to which you are thoroughly entitled.

    Hmm – lots of suggestions already, and I could ransack my mental block’s shelves for more, but – here’s just one that both rhymes and tickles me pink – John Fuller’s Valentine.

  17. Pingback: “The Walls Do Not Fall” by HD: some thoughts on the importance of poetry, words and the roots of language | Vulpes Libris

  18. Renata
    June 28, 2013

    Simon, you may want to try a good anthology of poetry for children. Often such a book contains many beautiful and funny poems. Also, there’s Ogden Nash. Here’s a sample:

    Either old magic or new math
    Into our house has beat a path.
    How else could Einstein or Diogenes
    Explain an exploit of our progeny’s?
    While at the table with his ilk
    A child upsets a glass of milk.
    The glass held half a pint when filled,
    And half a gallon when it spilled.

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2013 by in Articles, Theme weeks.



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