I have asked so many people why they hate poetry, and it’s because they see it as something ethereal, something impossible to understand. They were forced to study highbrow poetry at school, and never introduced to younger (still alive) poets that write in plain English about modern times. If it were up to me, everyone would know Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’ off by heart before they leave school. I don’t know anyone that couldn’t relate to it. Poetry is being taught all wrong in a way that is completely inaccessible to those that are forced to study it, and unless we change that, generations are going to fall out of love with the beauty of language.
Everyone enjoys different types of music and films, and reading is no different. What appeals to one person may not appeal to another, and what appeals to the masses may have no literary merit.
Children are forced to read at school, and because they’re forced to read, their act of rebellion — unless they enjoy school and/or English — is not to read.
For example, I used to enjoy Maths at school. I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I could pick things up if I spent the time on it (except on percentages. I hate percentages). I was put in for the higher paper in year 10, and when year 11 came around, we had a new teacher as our year 10 one left. The year 11 teacher started teaching us different ways of doing things, talking down to us and using bubble writing on the whiteboard. I have no issue with bubble writing, but not in a GCSE Maths class. It’s just childish.
This is my last memory of Maths. Because of this memory, I don’t like Maths. I try, I really try, but every time I do a sum I get flashbacks of bubble writing and being talked down to. By forcing me to do things that I was uncomfortable with (or in a way that I was uncomfortable with), my memory of it was tainted forever.
The same thing happens with English. A teenager can’t relate to Shakespeare — most haven’t experienced tragedy by 16! They can’t relate to Shakespeare in the same way that they can’t relate to poetry by Blake, Wordsworth or Byron. The language isn’t too advanced for them, and the content may not be too hard for them to understand, but they’re too young to be able to feel it. They’re not taught that there are different kinds of poetry out there in the same way that there are different kinds of paintings or film. They’re taught that this is poetry and this is what it means, when in reality, the poet may have had no idea what they meant.
If you try to force everyone to read the same thing in the same way, and don’t offer alternatives (at least for them to read outside of school), they’ll think all books — all poetry — are the same. Which is like saying every computer OS is the same, or every website. Or even every person. You’d never find Larkin writing the same thing as Blake. Every poet has their own voice, their own opinion, their own personality, and that comes across in their work.
Not only that, but the beauty of poetry is that you get something new from it every time you read it. The beauty in poetry is the rereading of it.
Unfortunately, unless you went on to study English Literature, Creative Writing, or come from a literary background, you probably already went to school with a preconceived view of poetry and one that was never going to change. This is why so many teachers know nothing about (or don’t like) poetry themselves – they were never taught it right either. If the teacher doesn’t love what they’re teaching, there’s only so much feigned enthusiasm they can pass on (and children are intuitive creatures – they can probably tell you don’t mean any of it).
Poetry often requires more than one read to fully understand. Unfortunately, we live in an age where people want information, and they want it NOW. Poetry doesn’t give that to you. Poetry makes you work for that information. You can read a poem and get a different meaning from it every time, then discuss it with a friend and get another one. This is the beauty of poetry, but that’s also its downfall in the twenty first century.
What Can Be Done?
If you’re a teacher or a parent, do some research. Check out some modern poetry magazines and anthologies. Once you open the door, a varied world of poetry approaches. It’s pretty amazing. Some to check out are the Poetry Review, The TLS, New Walk and Ambit.
You can also look up poetry on particular themes, for certain ages, or by certain people (my favourites are Philip Larkin, Rhian Edwards, Sophie Hannah and Allen Ginsberg — all have quite dry senses of humour and aren’t afraid to say it like it is). The Poetry Guide is a good place to start for this, as you can search by some of these things. Then, of course, if that fails, there’s always Google.
If you’re looking for poetry that’s more child-friendly, Beatrix Potter wrote some (which is probably what got me into poetry) and so did Roald Dahl. There’s also Gez Walsh for slightly older children. They all write catchy poetry that children can understand and engage with.
You can encourage children to write poetry, too. Haikus and acrostic poems are short, simple poems that are easy to write, and limericks can be great fun to read and write. Very short poems like haikus can also tie in with social media — they work particularly well on Twitter.
If you already have a deep-rooted hatred for poetry, I’m not here to try and convert you. That’s not fair on you, and once people have formed opinions on things they’re very hard to change. Especially, it seems, on poetry. However, if you want to change how you feel about poetry, you can by following the tips above. (You can also change it by keeping an eye on this blog, its Facebook, and my Facebook page, as I write a lot of poetry and sometimes share it/write about it.)
If you don’t want to change how you feel about poetry, that’s your prerogative. However, you’re missing out on a world as visual as a painting, as descriptive as a novel, and as immersive as a game.
What do you think about how poetry is taught in schools? Does your opinion of poetry stem from how you were taught it? Where do you get your love (or hatred) of poetry from? Let me know in the comments below, on Facebook, and on Twitter!