I was good at poetry in school. Which means I was good at listening to what the teacher told us the themes of the poem were and searching the text for similes and metaphors that evidenced those themes. It wasn’t that my classmates and I didn’t enjoy reading poems: it’s that the idea of a poem as something one could enjoy didn’t occur to us. We weren’t aware it was a possibility the way it was for stories.
I continued reading poems when I went off to university, into the stage of life when I sought to define myself in terms of reading material. But still I read them like I was taught in school—as a puzzle to be solved. Most importantly, I always read them alone and in my head.
At some point in my early twenties though I started trying to memorise poems. I can’t remember what the impetus for that was, although realistically it was probably an extension of defining myself by what I read: if you want to be a person who reads poems then being a person who recites poems is even more so that. I started out with Phillip Larkin’s This Be The Verse, back when I still though it was edgy and cool and not desperately sad. Next a Thomas Hardy, some Seamus Heaney, Silvia Plath, several more Larkins. I worked for a long time on Tennysson’s Ulysses, heading backwards from the Good Bit at the end, but I still only have 20 lines or so by heart.
I never did become the kid of person who recites poems to others: understandably enough nobody ever really asks. But I started reciting them to myself, first quietly under my breath and eventually loudly (when nobody’s around). That’s how I discovered that the meaning of poems isn’t in puzzling out the right interpretation at all. I let go of the need to solve the problem and started focussing the words and phrases, the way the best lines convey a feeling with startling economy. In this way I felt for the first time that I truly liked poetry, on its own terms.
What is poetry about then? I don’t know I’m afraid. But I feel I’m closer to it when I speak them aloud, making myself part of some oral tradition. I stopped memorising poems a while ago—I’ve only got ten or so complete bangers in my repertoire—but now whenever I read new poems I try to find time and space to read them out loud.
I’ve never been able to bear the sound of my own voice recorded. Of course everyone sounds different reverberated through their own skull, but when I really listen even my manner of speaking seems artificial—this man’s voice isn’t how I would choose to be heard. Just for you though, here I am speaking Nocturne: Christmas 2012 from John Burnside’s recent collection All One Breath.