Why I Read Poetry

Image from The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

I have a complicated relationship with poetry.

A poem is the first piece I ever wrote. It’s what set me on my path as a writer, and for that, I’ll always be grateful. Even though I’m sort of glad it’s been lost in the annals of time.

I wrote the poem in Year 5, at the tender age of 10, as part of a class assignment. I remember it was something whimsical and terrible about clouds, but my teacher (bless him) thought he saw something special in that barely legible handwriting. So he set me up with another teacher, who smelled of coffee and had the fabulous surname of ‘Wintergarden’, and in weekly half hour sessions before my actual classes, she introduced me to poetry.

I’ll admit I don’t remember most of it. But maybe that’s okay. Because what I do remember is the moment that she passed me the classic poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, in hardback. I remember opening that book and falling in love with the rhythm and weight of it, the incredible illustrations, and the imagery and the song:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

That’s it. I was hooked. I knew the power of poetry. And because I was lucky enough to get this tutelage and the encouragement that I too might be a poet, I wrote a lot of terrible poetry in my teens. I’m glad I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, and I’d never have learned that lesson of transmuting rage or depression or sadness into words.

But at the same time, school also sapped my passion for poetry. When I got to high school, I left Mrs. Wintergarden and her collection of poems behind, and I entered the realm where poems were lines of text to be analysed. Don’t get me wrong – my English teachers were brilliant and witty and taught me so much. But while I learned a lot during those analyses about the power of alliteration and enjambment, and the glory of Shakespeare and Robert Frost, the simple joy of relishing the words shrank as my technical appreciation for poetry grew. I forgot about the way I was meant to experience poetry – spoken, beautiful, musical. Instead, my experience of poetry narrowed down to exams and assignments where we learned to stalk each poem, to tackle it before it had a chance to open its mouth, to hold it down and take out our scalpels, dissecting the meaning of each comma and metaphor.

So I stopped reading poetry after I graduated. And after being drowned in fascinating but turgid books and articles written mostly by people who didn’t care about the enjoyment of readers at University, for a while I even stopped reading books.

So when I started reading again, it was with shy coltish steps. After being forced to read books I hated and books I was bored by, I thought I’d try to find classics that I loved: science fiction and fantasy classics. As part of that glorious time of rediscovery, I read Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And because I read those stories, I understood years later, when I picked up Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, that he was a poet. That McKinley was a poet. And that poetry made their works more beautiful.

So now, many years after school and university, several years into a job, a few years into having a crack at professional writing… I’ve started reading poetry again. Almost every day. It’s part of my morning ritual now – I’ve been borrowing poetry books from the library, which sadly don’t seem in very high demand. Each morning, I read one or two. I don’t like all of them. There are many I want to skip. But it’s like panning for gold. Every once in a while, you get something beautiful that makes it all worth it. That makes you look at the world differently, that makes you see each leaf of each tree in startling clarity.

So I’ll leave you with a couple of poems I’ve enjoyed recently, and poets I’ve discovered. I hope you enjoy them too.

And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So, by Wendy Xue

Night Thoughts – Schehrazade, by Ari Berk

The Autumn Leaves Have Fallen, by Brendan Byrne (in full disclosure, the husband of one of my excellent English teachers, whose poems I really enjoy).

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