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How to fall in love with poetry forever

Some people are in love with poetry. Some stick with it because they think they should, barely remembering what they liked about it in the first place. Some have never been seduced and wonder what the fuss is about; others are positively turned off by poetry and wriggle away from it as if grasped by Pepé le Pew. As a lifelong poetry lover, I’d like to hazard a guess as to where things might have gone wrong – and could have gone righter – for those in the latter camps.

Before they have a chance to realise what it is, really young children love poetry – in the form of nursery rhymes and rhythmic stories. Dr Seuss (I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!) was my first, and enduring, poetic crush. Then, at primary school, poetry is written, read and listened to for the pure joy of it – connecting with the pleasure centres of the creative, sensual, non-analytical right-brain. If, like me, a child has the luck to have access to shelves of ‘grown-up’ poetry (each poem a self-contained world to lose myself in, though I might not have understood everything), and/or a parent who loves to read poems aloud, as my dad did (Here we go round the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear…), the feelings can only grow deeper.

At secondary school, it can all go wrong. With the emphasis on targets and an over-rigid curriculum, time for writing poems and reading them aloud is curtailed, left-brain textual analysis is king and a poem becomes something like a crossword puzzle to which the teacher holds the ‘answers’ (this feeling-perception-habit often persists well into adulthood, with critics taking the place of teachers). The joy and the juice then runs out for many children (and so of course for future parents).

When I lead secondary school poetry workshops , I’ll often start with fun poetry writing exercises. We’ll listen to the results, then I might read a few delicious, sensual poets such as Sharon Olds (…your pupil swelled, grew / and grew like a time-lapse flower in the dark), Les Murray ( …sweet dented fruit / weeping pale juice amongst hail-shotten leaves), or Galway Kinnell (I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well / in the silent, startled, icy, black language / of blackberry-eating in late September). This is poetry – as is all poetry that I love – that can be enjoyed before it is analysed; indeed, poetry that need never be analysed – though of course it will be, by teachers and critics.

I don’t discount such analysis, rewarding as it so often can be and pretty much essential when it comes to ‘difficult’ classics such as the works of a certain W. Shakespeare (whose language can nevertheless be enjoyed for sheer aural pleasure alone). The aim is to counteract the academic over-emphasis on analysis – and to re-awaken the dormant, right-brain passion for poetry before it has a chance to go to sleep forever.

Besides being a poet, I also paint abstracts. When asked “why abstract?“ I often respond that in doing so I am not obliged to think – just to feel. It’s the same when I look at art, or listen to music, that I love. I don’t suggest you can separate feeling from thinking – rather that, when it comes to love, feeling comes first. And so it is, for me, in my love of poetry. May it, and yours (I do so hope you have one), last forever.

published in international literary magazine Orbis in 2008