My slightly dysfunctional relationship with poetry

Let's talk about how poetry and school exams are a worse combination than squid ink on a toothbrush, shall we?

Ah, poetry: the Marmite of the literary world. You either love it or you hate it, and like many veterans of the British education system, I bloody hated it. From the ages of three until eighteen, I was educated almost exclusively in the Welsh language, aside from the standard English and French lessons - the latter of which has already completely evaporated from my brain except for the phrases je suis une jolie petite poubelle and je veux ma pamplemousse. Fortunately, for the greater good of both my GCSE results and the whole of France, my school only offered French as a second language, which meant I didn't have to study any French literature. Dieu merci.

"But Mared," you might cry out. "You love literature - you even got a degree in it!" That is indeed correct, dear reader. I do love literature,  but if my experience is anything to go by, love has no place in a secondary school environment. While I can't speak for today's examination methods (alright there, Gove?), I truly believe that the exams I undertook between 2008 and 2012 were specifically engineered to put me off literature for life. Being bilingual didn't help matters much; I may not have had to study French literature, but I still had to go through twice as many literature exams. I will tell you now that this period of my life was the one and only time I resented being Welsh, and if you had to watch Tylluan Wen three times a week for a year, you'd feel the same way too.

When you're a creative child, what draws you to literature and its artistic counterparts is the fact that they're all subjective. There is no right or wrong way to interpret a painting, novel or poem - unless, of course, you're at school. Somehow, the examining board managed to take this wonderful, expressive, liberating concept and turn it into something aggravatingly, stiflingly and painfully binary. Our exams and homework were no longer based on our thoughts and interpretation, but rather how much content we could memorise and bash out in a two-hour exam. Texts that once evoked the heartache, passion and melancholy of the human experience were repeated over and over and over and over until they meant nothing at all. Literature had become a science, and I hated it.

 

When my English class went on a trip to see Carol Ann Duffy, poet laureate and unwitting victim of the OCR syllabus, I spent the entire time seething on the side of the room. What was the point of attending this person's poetry reading if we were only going to be told by our teacher how to interpret it? Actually, another memory I have involves that same teacher asking my A-level literature class to discuss the meaning of having a soul. 

 

Finally! I thought. A chance to interpret something and express ourselves!

My teacher then told me my interpretation of souls was wrong, and that was that for the rest of the year.

Despite a less-than-savoury experience with literature at school (and my teacher inadvertently suggesting I didn't have a soul), my love for the subject escaped largely unscathed, and I went on to study it at Cardiff University. Amongst my fellow enthusiasts, I was free to love literature in my own way again. In my second year, I submitted an essay on crime fiction that largely went against what my lecturers had taught us. In secondary school, it would have come back to me covered in angry red scribbles. In university, it got me my highest mark ever. Up yours, Ms [SURNAME RETRACTED].

Though I was finally in my element again, there was one more literary hurdle to face: poetry. After years and years of being told by teachers and examining boards what a poem is supposed to mean, I lost the ability to figure them out for myself. Or, rather, I lost the confidence to tell people what I thought, because, well, what if I was wrong? Poetry is by nature a complex form of literature due to its contradictions of depth and brevity, so it's hardly a surprise that I became to depend on others when it came to understanding their meaning. In my writing classes, if someone asked for my opinion on a poem they'd just penned, my feedback focused solely on its exterior: spelling, structure, flow, that sort of thing. If they ever pushed me for my honest interpretation about its deeper meaning, I would fake a coughing fit or, when cornered by one particularly demanding poetess, my own death.

(Side note: some writers don't actually like it when others' interpretations of their works differ from their own. This makes me very glad that Arthur Conan Doyle is dead and unable to bitch-slap me for the things I've said about his work.)

Then, around mid-2017, something big happened. Something huge. Something life-changing.

 

And it made me write a poem.

HEALING

 

I will take no offence, I will take no blame

I will learn no lesson or add fire to flame

for this malice you practise does not from you,

but from the one who hurt you,

and taught you to hurt me.

What prompted me to write this? An abusive relationship from which I'm still slowly recovering? A broken friendship which may never be recovered? A reflection of our current political climate? No. It's about a cat that scratched me when I tried to boop its nose. It was a very emotionally scarring experience, and it appears the only way I could process such trauma was by producing poetry. Don't worry, I'm not entirely sure how my brain works either.

After that initial poem, a burst of poetic inspiration soon followed. Potential lines of unwritten poetry would spark in my mind as I peeled carrots or stared out the window of the bus. His velvet lips hid the malice and hiss of a tongue made of venom and spit, whispered one. The day I love September most is when none remains but summer's ghosts, murmured another. These little lines would erupt from nowhere, but I had no idea what to do with them. My previous aversion meant I'd avoided every poetry-based seminar and writing class that came my way at university, so I wasn't confident enough in my ability to develop them into full-fledged poems. Instead, I decided to test the water and chucked them on Instagram to see what my mates thought. Their verdict: they liked them!

Now I knew folks didn't completely hate my poetry, I decided to dive a bit deeper by doing some research. Now, if you ever hear a writer say they're researching something, I can guarantee that 1) they're Googling something so specific and gory for a crime novel that they fear they might get arrested, or 2) they're reading. This time I was doing the latter, but trust me, I've done the former a lot. 

So, as part of my research, I re-read a couple of the poetry books I had yet to catapult in the furnace from my schooldays: Carol Ann Duffy, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare, a cheeky bit of Wordsworth and Blake. Once I was finished with those poetic staples, I  was ready to move on to bigger collections. However, instead of focusing on collections authored by just the one poet, I decided to opt for a broader range of books that would feature all sorts of different forms, genres and writers. Variety, after all, is key, so I popped a couple of collections in a wishlist, chucked it my Mam's way, and boom: got them for Christmas.

Now, if you want to get into (or get back into) poetry, these one-a-day collections will more than do the trick - especially if you read them aloud. To read poetry is to understand that each poem was made to be heard, for each syllable and rhyme to roll off the tongue and swim through your imagination. From children's rhymes to classic sonnets, each of these poems have evoked something in me that I haven't felt in years. They reminded me that, as a child, I used to adore poetry - a memory long suppressed by time, exams and a particularly rubbish recollection. In primary school, I would carry around a pink folder full of laminated poems that my father would help me type up, and whenever we had a substitute teacher I would beg them to let us write poetry instead of making posters. I forgot about all of that until today, when I read something that reminded me of my eight-year-old self scribbling rhymes in the corner of her Year 4 classroom.

NOISE

Billy is blowing his trumpet;

Bertie is banging a tin;

Betty is crying for Mummy

And Bob has pricked Ben with a pin.

Baby is crying out loudly;

He's out on the lawn in his pram.

I am the only one silent

And I've eaten all of the jam.

Anon.

It's short, it's simple, but it made me laugh - and isn't that just fantastic? With that, I would like to wish you all the happiest National Writing Day. The world might be going to shit and Trump is a living fever-dream, but the sun is out and poetry exists, so go buy a book and go bloody read it.

Mared Jones is a writer and goblin whose hobbies include dissociating, luring cats into her garden, misplacing her tea, and writing about herself in the third person.

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