Who's Afraid of T S Eliot?

Pam Johnson highlights the fears and prejudices that often surround the reading of contemporary poetry and suggests ways to overcome them.

You're in a book group, each year you watch eagerly the for the titles on the Man Booker, Costa and Orange Prize longlists, then the shortlists; you love vivid, intelligent writing that reflects on contemporary life. But do you follow, with the same enthusiasm, the writers on the T S Eliot Prize shortlist? "Ah, but that's poetry," you say.

Curious to know more about why book groups might avoid poetry, I contacted a few around the country. While many individuals claim to enjoy poems on the radio, in the newspaper and in public spaces such as the Underground, on buses or on buildings, the idea of discussing poetry in a group seems to make many people anxious.

‘I'll look daft, if I don't get it'
This is the most common fear. Even from those who studied English or who work with words in their daily lives, even from those who admit to liking the idea of reading poetry. "I feel I should understand it, come up with something clever about what it all means. Maybe this is a throwback to English ‘A' levels?" Several people cited a bad experience at school. Now, faced with a poem that doesn't immediately yield its meaning, there's the spectre of classroom humiliation. Yet, for the less fearful, part of the pleasure of reading a poem is not to understand it on a first read, but to allow the poem to reveal itself. Even then, some of the best poems refuse to be pinned down to a single interpretation.

In a fiction group isn't part of the enjoyment discussing different views on characters' motives and debating what you think the author intended? Ambiguity is part of the fun; so too in poetry. Former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion describes engaging with poetry as, "serious fun." Why not let go of the idea of a single meaning for a poem? Instead, enjoy the process of seeing how others see it. At the start of the meeting, agree that if you don't get it, you say so; make that the starting point for discussion.

‘There's no story'
Fiction lovers, it seems, suspect that with poetry there won't be enough to get their teeth into. "Poetry doesn't have a story." Another reader noted, "I am fond of poetry. I like its conciseness, its rhythms, its difference to prose, but my book group's idea of reading is to be immersed in a long book." True, there isn't the engine of plot to keep the pages turning, but individual poems often form part of a larger narrative; themes and preoccupations are explored over the length of a book. When looking at individual poems in a group, a satisfying sense of immersion comes from the collective unravelling of a poem. It's different from being lost in a long narrative, but no less a rich and rewarding reading experience.

‘It's too intense, poets are writing for themselves.'
Though many fiction writers process deeply felt, autobiographical experience, the material is camouflaged behind the mask of characters. It's safe to discuss the emotional lives of characters but less comfortable to get close to a lyrical poet. Many poets adopt a mask, create characters or write in different voices. Poetry isn't always about individual angst. Consider another common prejudice - "Poetry isn't relevant anymore." Contemporary poets have their ear to the ground. Many of them look out at the world exploring history, politics, science, the natural world, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. There's a lot of wit and humour too. You might be pleasantly surprised. There's a diversity of tone from the elliptical to the conversational. As with fiction, finding poetry you like involves listening in for a voice that attracts you.

What about the seriously allergic?
A couple of groups were against programming poetry because one of their members was totally allergic. As dust mites constrict the bronchial tubes of asthmatics, so the word ‘poetry' can constrict the thoughts of some. "I felt stupid at school when I didn't get a poem. I blanked off."

Another reader observed, "It's a bit like people who cut off from maths." The strength of feeling might be the same but there's a difference worth considering. If you blocked out maths at school you're unlikely ever to acquire the skills needed to unravel equations that illuminate the world of quantum mechanics. Higher maths is no doubt lost to you but not so poetry.

Poetry is made of language - the language you use everyday - put under a certain kind of pressure to illuminate our lives. There is no right answer. If you enjoy reading fiction, you enjoy words; if you enjoy words, it's never too late to have a crack at poetry - no special skills required.

Pushed for time?
I found one group that had recently moved to poetry, because people weren't finishing novels in time. "I find it quite a social rather than solitary thing. Poetry asks lots of questions, which invites good chat." Though people might want to read ahead of the session, one big plus about looking at poetry is that you can read the work for the first time at the meeting and still have a stimulating discussion.

Why not give it a try?

As someone who appreciates good contemporary writing, why not make the T S Eliot Prize shortlist an opportunity to sample some of the best contemporary poets? You can download individual poems on the shortlist and sample across the ten writers, or choose one poet and read the whole collection. With the concerns mentioned here out in the open, most fiction groups could enjoy the occasional session on poetry. As Simon Armitage notes in his brilliant Poetry Testing Kit: "Remember, the reading of poetry is not an exact science: it does not require the wearing of protective glasses and need not be carried out under strict laboratory conditions." 


Pamela Johnson
, novelist and poet, is Associate Tutor on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She blogs at http://www.wordsunlimited.typepad.com/


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