Falling back in love with Poetry

Posted by in November's Magazine

Kevin Williamson, of Rebel Inc. and Neu! Reekie! fame, will be writing a poetry column for us. Here he introduces us to what he hopes to achieve

Why do people fall out of love with poetry? This is a question that gets asked much less than, say, why do so many folk hate poetry? But maybe it’s more to the point. To explain:



If you go back in time, before school does its level best to put you off, poetry connects with wee kids (us) before any other art form – via nursery rhymes. You’re barely able to string a sentence together and your parents are already reciting simple rhymes to you at night. And they tend to stick. These are the original memes.

Nursery rhymes create small vignettes of verse, often with highly visual scenarios, that lodge in your brain, often for a lifetime, until you’re ready to repeat the same process with your own kids, or with kids of friends and family.

Why? What is it about nursery rhymes that kid love so much? Adults too. Nursery rhymes aren’t always light or comic. They’re often dark in content. Humpty Dumpty is a tragedy. The egg falls. Breaks. Naebody can sort it. Tough shit. The End. 

Or take Jack & Jill. Off they go happily, up the hill, for their pail of water. Then Jack trips and busts his head open. Then Jill falls. Maybe she breaks her crown too. It’s a mystery. You have to fill in the blanks. The End. 

K W with the infamous E issue of REBEL inc.

Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses is another nursery rhyme whose words are shrouded in mystery and whose origins are unclear. Why do kids form a circle, sing “a-tishoo-a-tishoo” then fall down? Popular twentieth century wisdom said it dated back to the bubonic plague of 1347. For sure, some of the words suggest it could be a possible interpretation. But modern folklorists contest this and argue it first appeared in print in 1881 and as such would almost certainly have existed in written form centuries earlier, if, indeed, it had been chanted for over 600 years. 

I could give examples of many more nursery rhymes, and their dark, death-laden verses, and most of you readers will know all the words. Interpretations can be tricky but here’s the thing: their lasting appeal didn’t come through analysis or determining meaning but because there is something about the language in nursery rhymes that we all enjoy. They trip off our tongues. 

Football chants echo them. Fans chant simple rhymes – I’m one of them – because they like the words and they like the emotions they generate, even if they’re about, say, a football manager’s magic hat.

Language is the key to poetry. This goes for both its enduring appeal and its mass unpopularity. I’d go as far to say the unpopularity of poetry begins in schools. Schools can’t help trying to teach poetry as something to be interpreted. They want to test school students, because the education system is obsessed with testing, therefore they ask their students to find hidden meanings, as if poems were puzzles to be solved. 

But this isn’t what poets have in mind when they write poems. Poets want to explore their feelings; dredge up images and experiences from deep inside their subconscious; or excavate from a lifetime’s worth of memories. They want to communicate these in the hope they might trigger something inside the reader. What they trigger is the joy of poetry. It could be memories and feelings that are at a complete tangent to the poet’s actual words. Once set loose poems work their own magic.

If we want children, and subsequently adults, to enjoy poetry, it might be a good idea to go back to basics and take the nursery rhyme approach in schools: propose the reading of poems aloud, where the words themselves can be savoured on the tongue. 

Humpty Dumpty is a tragedy. The egg falls. Breaks. Naebody can sort it. Tough shit. The End.

We could encourage the enjoyment of the images that words create inside our heads. We could suggest readers try and connect with the thoughts, feelings and emotions of strangers. Poetry is an intimate one-on-one dialogue based on empathy and connection. Every reader will respond differently. There are no correct or incorrect responses. There is no need to understand everything. It might only be a line or two that connects. Poets would be happy with that.

Chatting with the editor of this esteemed publication about writing a regular poetry column we kept coming back to the questions: Why does poetry have such a relatively small audience. And does it matter? We both think it does.

In the coming months I’ll jot down some random thoughts on poetry, poets, and the poetry scene today. I’ll try and steer those of you who may be Poetry Indifferent or Poetry Curious towards some of the good stuff, towards modern poetry worth checking out that is neither too esoteric nor preaching to you what you already know.

If you can’t wait till next month check out a Twitter poetry project I’ve been working on every day since 1st January this year. I post a poem on my Twitter feed every dinner time (or at lunch time for the posher folk) all modern poetry. Follow @williamsonkev or search on Twitter for the hashtag #365poems365poets and you’ll find them all there. Happy reading.

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