Poetry has been part of my life for as long as i can remember, but i’ve never consciously learnt how to write it. In fact, i’m not sure you ever can.
My interest has resurged of late as I have a couple of friends who are ‘proper poets’: in that they have work published or are unafraid to admit to their addiction. Somehow this has made it more acceptable for me to stand up and admit that i am, in fact, a poet.
I like poetry for the same reasons that i like painting or drawing: it’s an expressive activity where you can make up the rules. You always learn, but somehow you never stop learning. The challenge is in defining where the edges are, what you paint, the colours you use, what you write, the words you choose, how they relate to each other.
Poetry, like painting, allows you to develop a ‘voice’ all of your own and, like painting, you will always tend to look back at your earlier works with a mixture of disbelief and shame. Because you never really learn to be a poet: you just keep on practicing.
I suspect that a lot of my poetry is highly derivative. I read something I like and promptly copy it’s form, but aside from this parrot like activity, it’s a wonderfully self indulgent and reflective pastime. You don’t write poetry because you have to, you write it because you want to, and you are prepared to throw some time at it.
I guess it’s true that there are many things we learn that have no actual end point. We keep developing skills and knowledge over our lifetimes, but poetry is unusual in that you may write your masterpiece first time around and go downhill from there. In my mind, there is no discernible improvement over time.
Well, that was slightly disingenuous i realise: you learn structure, you learn to pace it, you gather feedback and rework earlier pieces, but i don’t know that you ever learn to come up with better ideas or indeed produce better poems. You see, the teenage angst ridden poems of love, loss and youth are no less valid than my modern reflections on drinking coffee in New York. They are a sign of who i am now and who i was then. It would be like editing your diary to think otherwise.
So what can we learn from poetry? Patience i suppose: the idea that some things we can practice but never master. Play maybe, i think that the way we play with words in a poem can let us see them (and the world around us) in a new light: it can stretch and challenge us, or just make us appreciate a word that usually goes unnoticed or unloved. Tone of voice maybe. That odd but essential component of writing where we change and adapt our tone to suit the audience: this is something we rehearse widely in poetry.
But that’s not really the point. Poetry has no point. Or perhaps that is it’s point. Maybe it’s just an excuse to play and look silly in a socially acceptable way. Be kind.