Poetry in motion

I’ve been on a bit of a poetry kick this month; Edinburgh City of Literature’s annual campaign this year (previous years have seen Conan Doyle and Stevenson used to boost interest in reading) is in collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library. Carry a Poem is encouraging people to find ways of taking poetry around with them and sharing it; as well as giveaways of books and cards it also includes projecting verse onto public monuments and buildings, such as the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge (an institution which, coincidentally, digitally archives this very blog):

carry a poem - national library of scotland 02
I love this idea; in our northern kingdom night falls very early in the winter months and I think it is rather wonderful that as darkness steals across the land the very fabric of the city becomes a page for the poet’s art. For an ancient city such as Edinburgh it seems most appropriate; it’s a city of history and culture, part real, solid buildings and streets, part fantastical, drawn from the imagination of painters and writers and photographers and others and the written word is as much Edinburgh’s foundational fabric as her native stone and volcanic rock, from scholarly treatises penned by kings to the centuries of endless writers who have lived and scribed away inside her, their words shaped by the city but also shaping the city itself, re-imagining it, be it Burns or Stevenson or Hume or modern authors like Rankin. Even her streets have become pages, home to the written word:
Carry a poem - Royal Mile
How sad then that so many people walked past as I stopped to look at these scenes, words written in light and displayed on ancient stone, most of them oblivious to these little gems of art and life the city was offering up to them as they hurried home after the day’s labour. Even when these schemes are not running there’s so much that draws the eye, little stories beckon, little glimpses of history and lives and small delights and wonders if you but pause for just a moment. Look, here carved in stone it tells you Scott once lived in this building, that Stevenson drank in this howff. Sometimes my walk home may take ten minutes longer than usual as I pause to look at something (and usually try to photograph it too), but what’s ten minutes? Who cares if it’s home ten minutes later when those moment were spent not in the dull, mundane every day of work, home, dinner, washing up but in looking at something beautiful that most people are too blinkered to notice, a tiny splash of magic that made me smile.

Their loss. The city speaks if you have eyes to see and ears to hear and you haven’t closed off that sense of wonder that first is stoked in childhood but so many seal off in adulthood, letting it atrophy, assuming it a childish thing and always left afterwards with a tug somewhere inside for something they know they have lost but they don’t know what it is let alone how to recover it. Pity such people; they like to project an aura of being capable, practical, down to earth; often they affect to pity the dreamer as one who is a little addled perhaps or merely too indulgent, even childish. But they are the ones who are hollow within, closed, lost, stumbling through the world with their most important senses blinded to the wonder around them.

I think it’s why I love poetry; it’s like jazz, it stands outside of prose, although kin to it, it touches directly on sensation, experience, emotions in a way no other artform does, although many borrow from it for their own medium, which becomes richer for it. Poetry is one of our most ancient artforms – long before we wrote them down they were told orally (still the best way to experience a poem) and passed on, from the short to the truly epic, the longer ones memorised in verse because it helped the cadences of the storytelling and for the storyteller to recall it for their audience. Words, especially the written word, were seen by the ancients as being akin to magic, a symbolic way of interpreting and reworking some part of the universe. They were right. Since I’m on a poetry jag, here’s a lovely little animation by Julian Grey I found which accompanies former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poem Forgetfulness:


BBC2 is showing an excellent series on the Romantic period of literature by Peter Ackroyd, a period which takes in the sublime interpretation of nature of Wordsworth through to the Byron’s take on the darker side of nature. It is also a period which, aside from shaping our modern attitudes to industry, science, nature and ourselves, gave birth to the literary forms of two of the most enduring mythic types: the human-created monster (which we still discuss today as we face the unravelling of the genome, reading the Book of Life – more dangerous than any Biblical apple – and cloning) and the vampire (still a potent and flexible myth applies to everything from Captitalism to AIDS), from an infusion of science, nature and human nature via Polidori and Mary Shelley.

It is one of my favourite periods for rich poetry, with this weekend’s programme focussing largely on one of my favourite rhymers, William Blake. In many ways Blake encompasses the different aspects of the Romantic period, with its attention to the awe and beauty of the natural world, the innocence of childhood (itself basically a metaphor by Romantics for the supposed ‘innocence’ of pre-industrial society) and a violent reaction to the brutal industrialisation of society and the harsh treatment of human beings. As Ackroyd points out, it is a period which informed much of the way we still view the world and our part in it today.

Most folk are quite dismissive of poetry, which is a shame. Even in the book trade the amount of colleagues I had who couldn’t care less about events like National Poetry Day was rather large and usually took the shape of the appallingly ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response. Which, as responses go, is up there with people who say “I don’t like jazz/classical music/ foreign movies/comics” delete as applicable. What that kind of reply indicates to me is not that the person doesn’t like that entire genre but that they are too damned lazy to think about it and have spent too much energy erecting little walls around themselves which cut them off from new experiences which could potentially alter their outlook on life.

Saying you don’t like poetry always struck me as especially foolish and lazy; you mean you don’t like any form of poetry whatsoever, be it the Iliad, a Shakespearean sonnet, a poem by Blake or Burns or even a song by the Beatles? I love prose, but even in long prose novels the best authors partake of some of the elements of poetry (often the writer is a poet as well as novelist), such as George MacKay Brown or the great Borges. Poetry is a way of directly addressing the emotions and experiences we all have in relation to almost everything, from the birth of a child to watching a sunset and as such is an essential part of our emotional and intellectual development and our ability to express those experiences and feelings; it partakes as much of our rational yet creative side as it does of a form of shamanistic magic (where words were ritually used to address the world). It also exercises the mind and emotions allowing us to more fully experience – and share – other events, visuals and arts, be it the reflection of light on a river or the kaleidoscope of colours which create an Impressionist painting (I’ve always thought Impressionism, like Jazz, is closely related to poetry) – the powers of imagination and erudition are muscles which need to be exercised just like any physical muscle. Try exercising it with some poetry and you’ll find your appreciation of so much else expanded, enhanced.

One of my favourite modern poets, the Scots-born Carol Ann Duffy, won the T S Eliot Prize for poetry the other week – if you haven’t read her then I heartily recommend her work, which is imaginative but very accessible, so if you’re the sort of person who thinks they would like to try more poetry some time but are a little afraid they won’t ‘get it‘ (worry not, you don‘t need an MA in English Lit to get poetry, that‘s part of the beauty of it), have no fear, she is perfect. Ladies, I especially commend The World’s Wife to you, where she has a series of poems all imagining events viewed from the perspective of the wives of famous historical figures (gentlemen, you too could learn from this too, if you open yourself, it is not just for the ladies).

The Beeb have created a site to go with the Romantics show on the main BBC site, including some audio sections where you can listen to some of the poems being read. Do yourself a favour and try reading a little poetry from time to time. For my part I think perhaps I have to – I have two famous poets as my kinsmen after all, Lord Byron (George Gordon) and Adam Lindsay Gordon (one of the first great poets in Australian literature) ; perhaps not blood relatives as such (it would be nice if they were!) but if we were all together at a big wedding we’d all be in the same tartan (and looking very rakish and sexy in our Clan Gordon kilts of course).