Why Poetry Matters (to Me)
3 minutes read
I loved words but when I was eleven I really, really wanted to sing. Sadly, I failed the school choir audition – maybe ‘Silent Night’ wasn’t the wisest choice – and so became a listener to songs, someone who would join in only if others carried the tune. But I’ve come to realise that the human need to sing can be expressed in many ways, and my way has been through poetry.
Words were never flat and still on the page. I was very lucky to have a father who gave me his love for books, stories, poems – the music of language – and shared the pleasure of them with me. When I was read to as a very young child the words took on shapes, smells, colours all their own – they leapt up, shape-shifted, danced into my imagination. Later, when I could say them out loud, they each had their own taste and feel in my mouth: they were magic, they could change anything, they had strange and mysterious powers.
Even school didn’t manage to squash the words quite flat. But I had a complicated childhood and for a long time poetry was something intensely private and silent. I was ashamed that I wrote. I kept it secret – I was already enough of an odd-one-out. Poetry mattered to me deeply, I read and read and wrote and wrote but it was all inward, my voice’s volume was turned right down, I couldn’t hear myself.
Thinking about singing, though, it’s the breath which connects to poetry. That’s what begins it all: my poems live as breath, in the vibration of voice, its rhythm, patterns. Poems leap with huge courage across silence, confronting and resisting its powers to demean and negate. The poems I most admire have the ability to make the nearly unsayable both visible and audible: they are poems of witness and resistance. In my own work I want to achieve something the same and am most proud when I hope I’ve come close. There is grace in resisting, in articulating, no matter how we do it. I asked someone at a recent workshop to begin the usual read-round of work at the end of the session. She read her poem: the words, hard, painful, true, were beautiful. They shone in the air as we listened. Her eyes filled with tears afterwards: she said she had never shared any work in public before, but she wanted to do it that day. The group held her. She broke her silence.
There is joy in exploring and adventuring, and so much pleasure in words’ architectures encountered along the way. A life without poems would be no fun.
In his talk ‘Tide of Voices’ Mark Doty says ‘a poem has no value, cannot be possessed – you can memorise it, give it away, email it to everyone you know’ and that is its power: like a song, it enters the world and transforms us, or we transform it, for the flow never ends. Deep down there is something wild, free and anarchic about poetry, or at least that’s how it feels to me, recalling those nights when words flew and flashed from the page and from my father’s mouth, making my imagination catch alight.
As I grow older I become braver and test the edges of my silences with firmer resolve. Others’ poetry helps and affirms me with this. There is joy in exploring and adventuring, and so much pleasure in words’ architectures encountered along the way. A life without poems would be no fun.
I’ll keep writing as long as I can feel that electric charge in words and feel the desire to share, connect, mourn and celebrate with other humans. This is my singing.