Who are you reading?

Paul Farley - 27 November 2006

Who was I reading?

I've been thinking about this since starting this residency. I don't remember a great deal of poetry from school, or before. There were the usual chants and rhymes, and - slightly bizzare this - sea shanties, which we'd sometimes sing during morning assembly. And Browning's 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' sticks in my mind, though I can't place how I came to be reading it. I remember Robert Louis Stevenson though. Does anybody still read his poems? 'Faster than fairies, faster than witches'. Another Victorian book - not poetry - was 'The Water Babies' by Charles Kingsley. That made a big impression, I have the most vivid sense of reading that book. And a book called 'Her Benny', which many Liverpudlian schoolkids will have read. Another Victorian. It was either Victorians, or the contemporary (60s and 70s) working-class kid's story, like 'A Pair of Jesus Boots' by Sylvia Sherry I think. I liked that. Once I got a library card, I went to town, but was omnivorous and would read all kinds of things fairly indiscriminately: there was a book called 'Twentieth-Century Discovery: the Planets' by Isaac Asimov which I loved (this is at a time when the popular science genre wasn't really as well stocked or visible as it is today).
Such a hotchpotch, really. But I was utterly, utterly fascinated by many of the books I read as a kid, and can still remember great swathes from them now. I suppose my point - such as it is - is that a kind of devotion to books, or a devotion I should say to reading books for pleasure and because they were mysterious and in some difficult-to-define way important to me, has stood me in good stead, I think. Not sure if the sea shanties will ever come in handy, though.
Do you have books like that? Books you keep going back to? Books you think are going to go the distance with you, even though they might seem largely unimportant or trivial to others?


Great question, Paul! Most of the poetry we had in my school was rubbish, or at least it didn't do anythnign for me. Like that one that starts 'What is this life if full of care you have no time to stand and stare.' I can't remember the poet, but we had to learn the poem off by heart and it seemed just like a jingle to me. There were poems I discovered for myself, what I think of as library accidents! I stumbled on Blake and Keats that way. There was a beautiful book with Blake's own pictures which I looked at whenever I got the chance. I still remember some of the poems off by heart.

Sam, yeah, I like your phrase 'library accidents.' Great. I had a few of those. In Liverpool, there is the Picton Library in town, and the reading room is modelled on the old British Library reading room; the lantern and dome gives back the best echo in the city, and I used to love testing it (I hadn't entirely emerged into my sensible adult 'middle class' genteel stage yet) by slamming books shut, coughing, etc. But the International Library had the best books, as far as I was concerned. I got William Burroughs books out ('Ticket That Exploded', 'Nova Express') still in their old 60s dust jackets. It actually felt wrong to be reading that stuff on the back of the bus.
I suppose this chimes with an earlier thread, doesn't it? Finding our own way, educating ourselves in literary matters... Good schools, and good teachers, can promote all this, of course, and often do, but there's always room for exploration, and - it almost goes without saying - no better place to do this than a big library. Students sometimes get anxious about where to start, but I think it's best to just plunge in: Robert Frost said something along the lines of 'we read A the better to read B, we read B so we can move on to C, then look again at A'. The point isn't 'progression' but 'circulation.' You often end up going back. One of the delights that lies ahead of you is going back and reading a poem or novel with a ten year gap in between the last time you did, and IN THE LIGHT OF EVERYTHING YOU'VE READ SINCE! Does your head in. In a good way.

Auden's poem which begins: "About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters....." , is forever in my mind. It was such a grind having to learn it in school but I'm glad we did. Even though I now live in a library, it is the poetry I was forced to learn which I can most readily draw upon in my day to day world.

Reading is definitely the way into poetry. I remember the MEG anthology for GCSE back in 2000 and finding few interesting poems among the ones we had to cover. I remember only DH Lawrence's The Piano and Wole Soyinka's Telephone Conversation. We were forced to study poems that to me, then, seemed too affected or, at least, unconvincing - Edward Thomas was in there with a poem about the end of winter and there was a terrible poem called Horses by someone who nostalgically remembered a pre-industrial age. Somehow these less interesting syllabus choices confirmed my stereotype of poetry as hackneyed and redundant since the steam engine. From Horace to Horses everything I remember about literature before the age of 17 touched on the passing of time or other topoi that meant nothing to a teenager. Under "Poetry" I conflated in a single 'erstwhile' my impression of the Romantics (gushing, sentimental, flowers) with the Victorians (stilted, moralistic or obscure in the case of Browning). And in my cynical school environment earnestness and sermonising were shunned. Of all literary genres I think poetry, or certainly lyric poetry, grabs the uninitiated faster if written in a modern idiom about modern life. So in the MEG anthology I was drawn to Duffy's Valentine poem, even though we weren't studying it. It's not really something I would dwell on now but it was more relevant and more intensely affective than other stuff we were reading; emotive but not earnest. I pretty much didn't read any English Lit after GCSE and only went back to poetry at the end of A-Levels and at university, but now I think it's the best thing in the world and am trying mass conversions! The more you read the more you understand and the more you can empathise with things beyond your experience - it really does sharpen your sensitivity - although, of course, with time your greater experience also means more things become relevant too. The more you read the more you can feel the qualities of different forms too, which is so important but which at school is just a way of writing intelligently in an exam. At school I would have scoffed at a teacher claiming "giant finned cars nosed forward like fish" had a different rhythm to "giant-finned...". I still resent Wordsworth for what I believe to be a continuing association of poetry with daffodils and clouds. I hate the word 'poetry' and 'poet', which I hope will be recast one day (there are few alternatives - "verse", for example, is pretentious and not comprehensive). In fact, I still haven't touched the Romantics or the Victorians, something I feel ready to rectify. My favourite poets at the moment are Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Derek Walcott and John Fuller. Immediacy and raw emotion are not really that important to me any more (though Walcott is that), but I think that Hughes, Plath, Duffy and co are a good way in and should replace any poetry before 1950 in GCSE syllabuses. Maybe there's room for Owen/Sassoon; war seems to speak to the young.

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