Reading Poetry

Paul Farley - 10 November 2006

I'm picking up a new thread from what Katy was talking about, because it's a subject area all of its own: why is there this discrepancy between readers and writers; and is simply reading the stuff the most important way of learning about poetry?

Is there a discrepancy? I've just picked this up as background noise, and it seems to be part of the weather now: more people are writing poetry than reading it. Though it's so easy to write something that doesn't go all the way to the right margin of a page: you could surmise that most people, at some point, have written a poem.

But it's depressing when it gets presented in the old 'nobody reads it any more' fashion. Though I'd say that means the poet isn't under so much pressure, so it works to his or her advantage. If I'm honest, I have to say I don't think about it very often.

I doubt things ever really change much. In the early 1820s, the poet John Clare was discovered, working in the fields of rural Northamptonshire, and published in London. There was a vogue for labouring, 'peasant' poets, and we could say that Clare was 'marketed'. Once the fashion changed - and the readership for poetry seemed to dwindle - Clare struggled to stay in print, and ended up mostly forgotten and shut away in an asylum.

There are these huge cycles of fashion and fortune that surround us all over time like great weather systems, and I just feel we have little control over them. Trying to second-guess what your audience might like to read is a mug's game. Surely, the best you can do is excite and engage yourself; hopefully, that sense of surprise and invention will transmit to somebody out there, the future reader. You may as well write the kind of things you want to write, because they thrill you in some way, rather than what somebody - yourself included - thinks you ought to write.

This is why reading poetry is so important. If you get all fired up, and find a poem that's mysterious and reapproachable, one that you're never sure you'll ever tire of re-reading, you've engaged with poetry and can ask all kinds of questions of yourself, and why you might want to write. Lots of students have come to me and said they don't read much poetry, because they don't want to be influenced, as if influence is a pollutant, a taint. It isn't. Your early efforts are bound to bear traces of your reading, and what's wrong with that?

All of the other stuff - workshops, readings, etc - can be important and enabling, but without reading widely and adventurously, you're going to struggle. It's at the core of it all. People shouldn't be forced to do it, of course. Everybody doesn't have to like poetry. But sometimes a poem makes a kind of connection, and when it does it can change your course entirely.


Poerty is one of the most wonderful things in my life. I'm only 15 and I love it. Many of my friends say they cannot be bothered of find it boring, but only because they don't read the right poems. Many poems are about life as a teenager- something they can relate to. I myself enjoy all poetry but my written work definitely does reflect what I have seen, read and done. When I write, I feel liberated and many people have read my work and related to it because most of it is by a teenager for teenagers. poerty is very important and my rich would be very different without it.

It's fantastic to read Vicci's comments - finding such joy in poetry at sucha young age is a wonderful thing. I wonder what poets you would recommend, Paul, for a keen 15 year-old looking for relevance to her/his own life? What poems could Vicci show her friends that might, just might win them over?

Many poeple have commented on my fascination for English and my passion for poetry, I'm glad you find it fantastic. I myself have tried to get more of my friends involved with English and such like but as it's a exam, most poeple see it as just that. I would be very interedsted to read more poems.

Hello,i am from Turkey and i really try to lern Englih language.For me, the most important thing in learning a different language is to learn abaut its poets and poems because poems show what a culture is like.I love reading poems in my mother tongue, too.To sum up poems are like how we live,so i thank all poets for their heart.

Yes, thanks for your comments and enthusiasm, Vicci, it's good to hear from younger people who are reading poetry, not because they have to as part of a curriculum - important though that is - but out of some sense of a deeper or more enjoyable engagement.
I was sat next to somebody a few weeks ago on a train, a student, and this subject came up, and she was saying something along the lines of 'it's boring, says nothing to me about my life' and so on, though when I asked who she'd been reading she couldn't remember. Then we were talking about music, and I was thinking it's incredible the amount of information we carry round with us, the sheer numbers of recordings, the shaded, graded differences between sub-sub-genres and the nuances of taste. She was explaining her own tastes and favourites from the current soundscape (I'd hardly heard of any of it) and I was wondering how much popular music and cinema and games, etc, have supplanted something like poetry. It's not as if people just can't suddenly read or hear it anymore, or that they've become less sophisticated or less able to discern, but maybe so much other, 'less difficult' media makes it harder to find poetry, and to hear what's being said?
I wouldn't want to prescribe and name names - but you could do worse than get hold of one of those big anthologies in the bookshop and just follow your own tastes; also, this website, and the Poetry Society's site, have spaces for younger readers, full of links. It's worth putting in a bit of research, I reckon. When you find a poem that challenges or delights, or one that in some way chimes with you, it can be a full-on experience, like encountering any great art, music, cinema or dance. As you probably have already discovered for yourself.

Yes, I have thank you. The anthologie I am using for my english exam at the moment is amazing but I will look into purchasing more. It's funny that you sould metion music as I find songs are just poerty put to music. I fthat student told you that poetry said nothing about her life, it's odd because most people can relate to bands and particular songs that they have heard. I thank you for your advice.

How interesting to hear from you, Gakhan. (if I have got your name wrong I sincerely apologise).It must be very hard to read poetry in another language because it is so dense and complicated. Your English must be very good. Who are the best known living poets in Turkey?

Mab, yes, it is a wonderful thing. I was wondering how important memorisability is for the early enjoyment of poetry. We have our nursery rhymes and mnemonics and playground chants, and then... it all goes underground. Or it did with me. But the facility... Anthony Burgess thought that the dredging up of lines from Volpone or whatever on the twelfth glass is the 'true literary experience', and thought that poetry should be learnt by heart, as the main part of any literary education. At the same time, I keep seeing an image of the mountainclimber Joe Simpson in the movie - have you seen it? - Touching the Void, where, half frozen, broken-limbed and in despair on the side of a glacier in the dark, Boney M's 'Brown Girl in the Ring' comes back to torment him, over and over. Maybe memorisability isn't all it's cracked up to be? Or maybe if he'd read Coleridge or Shelley...

Vicci - I think what Paul's saying about getting anthologies is really spot on - there's so much variety in a good anthology, it should lead you onto lots of new paths.

I recently found an anthology (by Faber, I think) of American Poetry, stuff I'd only really heard mentioned in class once or twice, or read snippets of - but this anthology has quite a bit by each poet, despite there not being so many poets, and I like that. I suppose it depends what you want - something like that, or something with only one or two poems, but many more writers.

Which anthology do you have for your English exam? And which exam are you currently doing? I've the AQA one, we're studying Heaney and Clarke primarily, along with some pre-1914 and looking over some others, though not at all in so much depth. (Which reminds me, I have essays to do...)

Gakhan - (again, the accented letters show up funny on our computers because it's different formatting here, but I hope that's right!) it's incredible to read in another language, but I suppose by doing that you are immersing yourself so much more in the language. Unfortunately I only know a little French and German (so far!) so my attempts stretch as far as Baudelaire, with the French on one page, the English on the next! (I actually need to get a book of it though for myself... something for the Christmas list.)

Paul - maybe the mnemonics and the nursery rhymes become replaced, for many people, as with the girl on the train, by music? But then poetry is so innately musical, so wouldn't it make sense for the same people who adore music to also adore and be interested in poetry?

Afraid I haven't seen the film, nor read Coleridge or Shelley, so cannot comment.

On another note though, you mentioned War Poetry in the previous discussion - I've recently finished 'Regeneration' by Pat Barker - a novel which gives many prompts for further reading, it's very much about people who wrote about the wars, or whose writing was involved with the wars -- here's a link, if anyone's interested:

Katy - just a quick note: the movie, Touching the Void, is on Channel 4 tonight. This has got hardly anything to do with poetry: I'll get back on track with my next post.

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