‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words’
– Robert Frost
Reading poetry as a child was as playful as the rest of my life. Poems encouraged nonsense, humour and imagination: unicorns in the garden, jellyfish on the stairs, sleeping giants, friendly turkeys, the wind, the snow and the rain. But then one day, without warning, poetry got very serious. I was about fourteen and in an English lesson at school. Poetry which had once leapt laughingly from my mouth was now booked in for surgery- as I was made to dissect, cut and scrutinise verses with clinical precision. Play no longer featured. I couldn’t enjoy poems for themselves, or just talk about how they made me feel, I had to probe them for hidden meanings and explain them using grand, lofty language. Words like enjambment, assonance, alliteration, metaphor, irony, cadence were bandied around the classroom. Poetry which had seemed light and fun – was now something which felt much more difficult. Something I was going to be examined on.
I thought I had abandoned my love of poetry then, but it was there in other ways- in music mainly. Ballads, rap, lyric and song. And it was vital. When I didn’t know how I felt, when all my simmering emotions were trying to find a voice, songwriters said it for me. I remember sitting there in my room, feeling my heart rise with the music, and saying, ‘me too’. To be understood, when I felt mis-understood (like most teenagers), meant everything. These songs captured my emotions and put them into words.
And this, I later realised, is actually what poetry is about. It is about trying to find words to our emotions, to find what makes us ‘laugh, cry, prickle, be silent,’ what makes us know that our ‘bliss and suffering is forever shared or forever all [our] own’ (Dylan Thomas). And because poetry is about what we see, hear and feel, because it is a reflection of the world, it is also mysterious. Poetry, like life itself, cannot be pinned down by logic; it cannot be solved, or explained in full. Poetry is alive. If we try and fix it in place, we’ll kill it. That is not to say that we cannot enjoy the craft of poetry, that we cannot appreciate assonance and alliteration and metaphor – because knowing these can make our experience of the poem richer. It is more that we should not be afraid of poetry we do not understand. We should embrace and delight in its mystery.
Sadly a lot of parents don’t read poetry with their children. This might be for a number of reasons. Perhaps growing up, poetry had the fun kicked out of it, or it felt difficult, or maybe it wasn’t presented as something that mattered. But parents and children are missing out on another way of understanding each other and the world. Poetry can be a way for children to articulate their feelings, for them to say ‘me too’, when they don’t quite know how they feel. Poetry can also expand a child’s imagination, vocabulary, rhythm, sense of humour and ability to memorize things. Poetry can take children to the edge of language, where prose does not.
Since reading poetry with my daughter Anwen, she has started to try and rhyme words. This leads to a lot of giggling and nonsense words. And poets are good at nonsense. Like Lewis Carroll or Edwin Morgan. Perhaps if you don’t already read poetry with your child, you could give it a go? Here are a few of my favourites: ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’ by Ogden Nash, ‘Talking Turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Maggie and Milly and Molly and May’ by E.E Cummings, ‘Is the Moon Tired?’ by Christina Rossetti and ‘Windy Nights’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.