I Am Not A Poet

I used to collect poems, like some people collect postcards or glass paperweights.

I’d keep a notebook, and if I read or heard or found a poem I loved then I’d scribble it down, as though by writing the words out myself I could somehow own them.

Sometimes it wouldn’t be a whole poem, it would just be a phrase.

a gossiping stream full of blethering pebbles

a shotgun sprinkle of freckles

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.

Good poetry – even a line or two – takes your breath away a little bit. Good poets make you feel like they have peeked inside your memory and plucked out an experience that you have lived, but then gone on to express your feeling or describe your scene better than you ever could yourself.

I would go to events to hear poets read their work. It was amazing how some were so comfortable speaking their words out loud, whereas others clearly hated it, standing stiffly, talking in a monotone that drained every last drop of passion from the poem on the page.

Eventually, with a lot of gentle encouragement, I started to write poetry too.

First at high school, where an enthusiastic teacher would fuel us with cups of coffee, before allowing us to write page after page of A4, stream of consciousness style. We would spend the first hour of class letting it all spill onto the page, then the second hour sifting through the results, rescuing any lines or phrases that might form the basis of something more substantial.

At University, my love of poetry increased. There was a writer-in-residence, who held weekly workshops where we’d read our work to each other and do writing exercises, before retiring to the pub. Appropriately enough, the closest one was The Blind Poet, which had quotations painted all over the walls. We would sit on tall barstools, sharing crisps, drinking cheap pints and smoking Marlboro Menthols as we wondered out loud which one of us would be published first.

(It came as no surprise at all when it turned out to be beautiful, talented Liz Berry.)

I found it thrilling. Suddenly I was spending time with the very poets whose works I had analysed in my English essays just a year or two previously. I was reading at events alongside people I idolised. I worked at the Edinburgh Book Festival during my summer holidays, always trying to cover the shifts that would let me attend the poetry events, and spending all my wages on the collections of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Roddy Lumsden. I completed a poetry module as part of my degree, and it was one of the very few courses I got a first in.

Poetry was a hugely important part of my life, so it was no big surprise when it was the topic that first allowed me to make conversation with DorkyDad. Before moving to Scotland, he had been a key part of the Beat Revival movement in New Hampshire. He’d done a Masters in Creative Writing, and had spent two summers at the Frost Place. He was – even then – a proper poet.

Since we met, he has gone from strength to strength, and I’m in awe of him. He has had a collection published, shared a bill with several US Poet Laureates, been Scottish Slam Champion, had one of his pieces read out on NPR, performed a one man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, hosted a Poetry Slam for the BBC two years on the trot… He deserves every last bit of it. He is brilliant, and I am so proud.

But for some reason I have gone in the opposite direction. I cannot remember the last time I wrote a poem. It no longer feels to me like the most natural way to say what I want.

It may be that I’m not reading much poetry. I don’t think you can really write well unless you read extensively. It may be that I’m not in that sparky, creative, challenging environment that university provided. Or it may just be that I have too damn much to say, and I can no longer cram it into the confines of a poem.

But honestly?

I think it’s more than that. I don’t think I am brave enough to write poetry anymore.

When all I had to write about was the nonsense that accompanied being nineteen, it was easy to write poetry. But now that my head is full of stuff that matters – love, parenting, loss, aging – it’s more difficult. It is too personal. You cannot write a good poem without cracking open your heart and leaving it on the page for people to see, and I don’t think I’m prepared to do that.

If I write a blog post and someone is indifferent to it, or even if they hate it, I just shrug and move on. But if I wrote a poem and put it out there, only to find that someone hated it, it would feel like a judgment, and I would be crushed.

For now, I am happy to leave poetry – the writing of it – to other people.

But I don’t want it to leave my life completely. I want to be a poetry reader again.

So I think I will go back to where I started – actively seeking poems to add to my collection. I’m going to browse the library and the charity shop looking for pamphlets that I’ve never read. I’m going to sign up for the Writers Almanac and have a poem delivered to my inbox every morning. I’m going to start a new notebook, for scribbling down those lines that inspire or touch me.

And I’m going to ask you for recommendations.

Please leave me the name of a poem or poet you love in the comments below, and I promise to check it out.


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14 responses

  1. My poet of the moment is Kei Miller. I have abducted the Poetry Library’s copy of ‘There is an Anger that Moves’ and my card is going to get stopped if I don’t give it back 🙂

  2. I ma really not a poetry person so can’t help you – sorry! Enjoyed this post though, so nice to read when someone is talking about something they love. 😉 Hope you find a new wordsmith xxx

  3. My favourite poem at the moment, is actually a Cento created for BBC Two Trails, which merges lines of poetry from classic poems – a bit like you picking out those inspiring lines that you wrote in your notebook. When I first heard it, it sent shivers down my spine and I still find myself going back to the website to read it. You can find it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00vztlb/profiles/cento

    I was a bit like you, in that much of my teenage years and early adult life, seemed to be devoted to reading and writing poetry. Since becoming a mother though, it seems to have faded somewhat. It doesn’t prevent me from being inspired now and then though.

  4. What a fab idea. I used to be a bit of a poet and I agree, it would be far more emotional at this age. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a cliche and the Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Travelled” is my favourite poem.

  5. Despite appearances I am in fact a lyrical noob but I do understand that feeling of feeling crushed if someone didn’t like a poem you had write (as opposed to a post). Do you think that’s partly the almost self-depreciating angst of a creative? I know a few people who paint incredibly well and are obviously talented but the slightest criticism spiral them into despair. I wonder with things so personal whether it’s possible to become detached from worrying about what others think.
    I am waffling now aren’t I?

    ps. Just so you know it was a mammoth struggle not to comment ‘I’m a poet but I don’t it’

  6. May I suggest a beautiful new blog – http://allatseascotland.blogspot.co.uk/ – she’s, I think, a very talented writer – and all her posts strike a middle way chord between poetry and pose – it’s quite unique. I have started to appreciate poetry more as I have aged – it really is the haute couture of writing – imagery and emotion so exquisitely refined! You are such talented writers in your family! I’ve been toying with the idea of a masters in creative writing one day – but maybe beyond my budget? Is it necessary to have a degree in writing to be a good writer though? I guess it can only help….

  7. I like to go back to Dorothy Parker (although she’s obviously not producing much new stuff these days…) and I always like John Hegley, both the stuff for kids and grownups 🙂

  8. Pingback: Social Saturday: My favourite reads of the week | Faded Seaside Mama

  9. As you quoted ‘Valentine’ I imagine you know Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Lightgatherer’. That and Fleur Adcock’s ‘For a Five Year Old’ span the spectrum of parenting for me, at the moment. I think about Lightgatherer all the time. All the time.
    I recently made all the new mothers of New Jersey (possibly an exaggeration, but a LOT on a ‘mindful parenting’ server, anyway) weep at/with Hollie McNish’s ‘WOW’ – I mentioned it two weeks ago in person to my local new mum’s group, didn’t go last week, and this week was beset by women wanting to tell me how they felt about the poem after going home to look it up. That was pretty cool.

    I re-read Robin Morgan’s “Monster” this morning while breastfeeding after a shocking night’s sleep, and cried, as I did when I first read it two years ago. It’s long, and it descends to violence but does not submit to violence, and it contains the words
    “I want a woman’s revolution like a lover.
    I lust for it, I want so much this freedom,
    this end to struggle and fear and lies
    we all exhale, that I could die just
    with the passionate uttering of that desire.”

    ‘I want a woman’s revolution like a lover.’ Now that’s a line that’s never, ever going away.

  10. Pingback: Cheerio 2013! « dorkymum

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