Friday, 28 March 2008

Too much information?

Schools break up here today for two weeks so it's full-time small girl for me for a while. However there are a few things I want to throw down on here before that...some of them to do with school so there's a link and, speaking as a person who once did some radio presenting (if illegally from the great heights of various Leeds tower blocks), I do like a good link now and again.
So, poetry...what it is, what it isn't....all that business has been making me think about so many things. Firstly it has made me think about the poems and poets that I have read, heard, liked and adored in my life so far – how did I know about them, why did I like them, what does that say about me and so on. This time I have been just concentrating on what gets called poetry and not including song lyrics (even though if there is a poet writing now who is any more a poet than Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart I haven't met her or him). It's been an interesting exercise this thinking about poetry because I think what we like says an awful lot about us - whether we like that or not. In fact a lot of what gets called literary criticism, for me, is just fancy ways of describing our likes and dislikes (but then fancy ways themselves have been one of my dislikes since I could say 'shut up you old snob' – usually to a family member - so I would say that wouldn't I...?).
Anyway, on with the throwing...first stop childhood. To be honest there wasn't a lot of poetry in my primary years. Things were a bit hectic at home some of the time and I was quite busy with being fiercely competitive and drinking up 1970s pop music, 1970s TV comedy and all those Enid Blyton boarding school books. The only poems I remember hearing are Hilaire Belloc's but I remember loving them and in particular their ferocious endings. They weren't as funny as the Two Ronnies or Dave Allen but I liked them anyway.
In my bizarre Quaker secondary school near Middlesbrough we studied a poetry anthology called 'This Day and Age' (maybe for O level..I can't remember now). We studied the poems by Auden, Frost, Graves, Larkin, Roberts and Sassoon. What's most interesting to realise now is that Larkin (these days possibly my most favourite of favourites) didn't make much impression then. I was, at 15 or so, just not ready for that kind of bitterness, that knowledge about life. Instead I fell hook, line and several sinkers for Robert Frost, WH Auden and, to a lesser extent, Siegfried Sassoon. I've never been one for memorising a lot of anything but Frost's “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” has stayed with me since that time and will no doubt be one of the last things I think before all the lights go out in here. We had a great teacher for Eng Lit (which made up for some of the school's other shortcomings). He was called Peter Rushforth and he wrote several novels that did well in the battleground of literary criticism - I think he even won prizes. He was a lovely man - though of course all we cared about then was his effeminate speech and tendency to spit when he spoke...foul creatures, teenagers.
We moved to London when I was 16 and I went to the French Lycee (now very trendy..did Madonna end up sending hers there or not..can't remember that either, thank god). I did English A level and had two amazing teachers there too – John Fielding and John Yeoman. It was a weird time (I had all the wrong clothes, the wrong accent, much less money than my schoolmates) but it was great to be in London at that age and our English classes were just brilliant. We did more plays and novels than poetry (although in 'Hamlet' the poetry is pretty fierce and I loved that). The only straight poetry we did was TS Eliot ('The Wasteland' and 'Burnt Norton') and whilst I enjoyed the classes and the whole trying-to-solve-the-puzzles aspect of it I can't honestly say I ever...what's that silly word you read everywhere now...ah, yes, engaged with it. I haven't read any Eliot since and I find it interesting that so many other people obviously see him as something like the big cheese of poetry since 1900. Maybe it was the whole locking up of the first wife (and me at 17 discovering feminism...), maybe it was the religious conversion (if it ever happens, shoot me, no, really), maybe it's the fact that he was Mr Lit Crit (from what I read on the subject which, to be honest, is as little as possible these days), maybe it was something to do with 'Cats'...but he's just never lit my personal fire. I'm glad I read 'The Wasteland', glad I read it with such intelligent guides and I can understand why others do rate Eliot so highly but it just didn't hit the buttons for me. Does saying that make you shout 'moron, idiot, shouldn't be allowed out without a gag'? If it does...take a deep breath, walk around a bit, remember...we don't all have to like the same things...is that only making you worse? Probably.
Heck, this is going on a bit...maybe I should have done it in chapters.
After school I ignored my lovely English teachers and chose to study Modern Languages instead of English at uni (Cambridge, darling, so you see..if I am thick it is with full knowledge of my thickness). I did so partly because I loved going abroad and partly because I felt learning other languages might make me a useful member of the human race. I used to think a lot about being useful – never actually helped me be very useful, sadly. As for poetry in those years, no matter how well I knew another language (and Spanish was my best) I never really felt right reading poetry in anything other than English. It always felt false...like I was pretending to understand more than I did...so I kept to novels and read more Dostoevsky than was good for me (not in Spanish obviously...I did say languages, plural). I know a lot of poets love translating and working on the best translation possible of a poem but again, that just doesn't appeal to me, it's not one of my interests.
So...the wilderness years that came after...basically I spent years in dark rooms filled with loud music. If someone had been reading poetry in there you would never have heard it above the racket. When I did finally come out I came across the following poets who helped me move along the road to where I am now- Lemn Sissay, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Wendy Cope, Philip Larkin (ready for it this time..), Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, Simon Armitage, Benjamin Zephaniah, Matt Harvey, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dannie Abse, Fleur Adcock, Liz Lochhead, Neil Rollinson, Kate Clanchy, Stevie Smith, Sharon Olds, Tony Harrison. If any of these make your face contort into a sneer then...it's probable that I wouldn't like all of your favourites but apart from that – what does it mean? I used to sneer when I was younger (it's easy enough to do) but since the wilderness years I sneer a lot less than I used to. Nervous breakdowns have so many advantages, I just can't tell you.
Right now I am exploring a whole load of different poets – some I have missed, some that are new, some that I have read but want to try again. Here are some of them – Emily Dickinson, Diana Hendry, Connie Bensley, Billy Collins, Pat Fox, Colin Will, Magi Gibson, Brian Patten, Jackie Hagan, Helen Thomas, HB Cruickshank, Ciara MacLaverty, Mark Haddon, Robbie Burns (I'm a new Scot...only here since 2002), Don Paterson, Lord Byron, Helena Nelson, Marion Angus, Edwin Muir, Tom Leonard and Bee Smith. Other poets I know I should and want to get to grips with are William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, Sophie Hannah, Sasha Moorsom, Christina Rossetti, Alexander Pope, Shelley, Patrick Kavanagh, Muriel Spark, Adrian Mitchell, John Clare, UA Fanthorpe. I've got a lot of reading to do...I'd better stop with all this blogging nonsense...and, by the way, if you read all this...thanks. I think.

19 comments:

Colin Will said...

An interesting read, Rachel. We surround ourselves with the poetry we like, and that colours our tastes and shapes our definitions. I prefer to read poems which are acts of communication (and Karine Polwart's right in here). The poetry I don't like is the poetry of concealment, so that rules out, for me, a lot of the arty, clever-clever stuff.

Sorlil said...

when I first started reading poetry I loved intense, explosive and densely packed stuff and it didn't matter whether I 'got' the poem or not, my fav poets were (and still are amongst my favorites) Plath and Eliot. I always thought of Plath as a kind of literary Picasso and I loved that about her poetry. Now I read and love poetry that I previously wouldn't have looked twice at, Kenneth White for example.

I think it's easy to be closed minded about what constitutes poetry esp if your route into writing is through online workshops/forums as it was for me, the 'good' poets are quick to lay down the rules about what is and isn't poetry, it took me years to escape that mindset and it was only when I did that I started to improve in my own writing.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for reading my great long 'poets what I have read' saga! I didn't mean it to wander on for quite so long but once I'd started...I just couldn't stop! This blog isn't called 'rambling' for nothing...
Interesting you mention la Plath, Sorlil. I was very aware that I wasn't mentioning her! Somehow I've never quite become a fan though I know so many are. Lots of reasons...to do with suicide (see earlier posts...), perhaps to do with feeling too 'intense, explosive and densely packed' myself at times, to do with her being the poet that so many women, particularly, do go crazy over...and then I stupidly watched the 'Sylvia' film and now can't see beyond Gwyneth Paltrow...not good.
However I am aware that none of these are good reasons for not having given her poems more attention...one day I will read her properly. Maybe.
I'm with you on the communication, Colin. I know there are lots of different priorities for writers and there is no reason that communication is a better one than any other but to me it always seem hugely important. People can be so bad at communicating...it can be frightening and astounding. Or predictable and amusing (depending on mood/type of day etc).

Rachel Fox said...

Forgot to say..if anyone wants to suggest a poet that I haven't mentioned at all that they think I should read NOW because it's so important and I might die tomorrow and if I did and I hadn't read it then that would be truly terrible...then please do. Reasons and poems to start with also welcomed.

Sorlil said...

yes I was suprised not to see Plath on your list. I think G.M. Hopkins is a must, I see you link to Jane Holland - she's just posted a Hopkins poem on her blog. Reasons why to read Hopkins - sound, imagery and immense energy.

I particularly love his sonnet 'God's Grandeur'.

Rachel Fox said...

I will try Hopkins...had an unpleasant experience with family member and GMH a while back but, as with Plath, that was not the poet's fault! Damn families...

Rachel Fox said...

Oh and I am possibly the least religious person alive so that title would scare me off not draw me in...but I will not be small-minded...it could mean anything, couldn't it...?

Sorlil said...

I'm really not a fan of religious poetry but this poem's wonderful!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I found the poem online and it is amazingly tightly-packed and vivid. I like all the feet and treading and blearing and smearing and the 'nor can foot feel, being shod'. It's funny too because it has a real feel of the novel I'm reading just now - 'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm halfway through but so far it is a...looking for big enough adjective...tremendous (will have to do) book.Highly recommended.

Sorlil said...

It's great isn't it?! I love the 'shining like shook foil', think about it evertime I'm putting some foil over a dish for the oven! The book sounds interesting, never heard of her but the title is eye-catching.

Colin Will said...

Yes, I'm a Hopkins fan. I love his language and his enthusiasms. 'Inversnaid' is my favourite, but I like 'God's grandeur' too, despite not understanding some of his religious imagery - not in my background.

Rachel Fox said...

Another blog just reminded me that I meant to add Edna St Vincent Millay to my 'want to read more of' list. Was I just being lazy because of that name (I can never remember it in the right order...sometimes feel there should be a 'de' in there too)? If so, very poor excuse, m'am and I apologise.

Dave King said...

A really interesting read, Rachel. School poetry was a dead loss for me: How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix", "Lochinvar", "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". At least it didn't get to put me off anything that mattered. (I think all the regular teachers were doing their bit for King and Country.) I got a taste for Poetry at Art School and later at Teacher Training College, but didn't seriously try writing it until I retired. Like you "The Waste Land" didn't hit the buttons, but "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" did, and how! I learnt that one by heart, hoping that it would help me to forget the ones I had learnt at school. No luck there, though!
I agree with you that much criticism is likes and dislikes in fancy dress. There is so much in your post that I can hardly do it justice, but you have echoed my experiences enough to have made it fascinating for me to read. Thank you.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for reading and commenting and hello to you, Dave! I'm glad the read wasn't a waste of whatever time it took you to wade through the ramblings...
I did find doing this review of what-I've-read-so-far an interesting exercise and can recommend it. I find that more and more I value honesty above so much else and so when I write anything (except maybe a shopping list) I look at myself in an imagined mirror and say 'come on...is that really honest or are you just saying that because it's easy/funny/something like fashionable/so uncool it's trendy/sounds clever etc?' It does make for even more long conversations with self than usual (and self can be a right bore) but generally I am OK about what comes out in the end. For ages I have been working on a similar review with music but that's just so huge a project. I've liked a lot more music than poetry for a lot more varied reasons...

John Baker said...

Thanks for this, I really enjoyed it. It took me away.

Rachel Fox said...

Hello John - nice to meet you back here in the archives! How did you get here then?

John Baker said...

Just snifting around looking for truffles trying to escape from middle-brow culture. I'm one of those people who still hopes to find meaning. Not really, though, unless it's being drunk on words.
I've snuggled down in various parts of your archive at the moment. It's a good place to be.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah yes, meaning...tricky son-of-a....well, you know.
Glad you're enjoying some of all this rambling. I always feel 'middle-brow' is what quite a few people would call me! What do they know...

John Baker said...

They don't know noffink.