With National Poetry Day fast approaching, the fabulously poetic Michael Rosen pops into My Book Corner to share Ten Great Ways To Delve Into Poetry.
1. The starting point for poetry is that it has to be something we want to read or listen to. If we make it something that has to be done to prove that we are clever enough or right enough, it will end up being a source of mild humiliation for many if not most people. The trick then is to find what will tickle the interest of the child in question. For some, it’s to make sure the child has the space to read some poems on their own. For others, it will be to make the discovery of poems very social – reading together or in performance. For others it might be to listen to poems being read in some kind of audio format. The choice of poems will vary too of course. For some, it’s those private moments of contact, for some it’s with poems that aren’t even understood but are enjoyed for the sound and the sweep of them. For others, it’s more about how we make contact with each other in a room or performance space. At the heart of all these moments, though, it has to be pleasure as the starting point.
2. We can ask, ‘what can we do with a poem?’ Reading it to oneself or out loud are the most obvious but by no means necessarily the most affecting or most long lasting. You can draw or paint in relation to a poem. I say , ‘in relation to’ because it doesn’t have to be a picture OF the poem, it can just be what comes to mind. It can be abstract or figurative. It can be a doodle, a portrait, a landscape; surreal, naturalistic, symbolic or whatever. Some poems are great starting points for thinking about mimes and dances. You can read and re-read a poem and think how you might represent that in movement. This is one way to explore the emotion and the symbolism of the poem.
Photography is a great way to explore poems: you can match photos to poems, either by finding a photo or taking one.
Some poems lend themselves very easily to adding rhythm tracks or tunes. This takes us into performance. When we think about performing a poem, we don’t have to just think of standing up and reading. We can think of how we can do it as a group performance, say, sharing lines, throwing lines at each other, repeating lines that aren’t repeated in the original. We can add actions to go with the words, or even instead of some of the words. We can speak in chorus for some of the lines. We can use our voices to create a ‘click track’ or ‘voice box’ rhythms behind the poem. And of course we can move about as we say the poem, just like rap artists do.
3. There are ways of investigating poems though I would say that it’s often a bad idea to do this first. One way to investigate a poem is to say that all poems have what I call ‘secret strings’. The words, sounds, patterns and rhythms of the poem are linked together in ways that the poem itself does not announce. A poem doesn’t usually say, ‘Look at how I am rhyming!’ It just rhymes. So rhymes are one example of how there is a secret string running from one rhyming word to another. Another secret string might be how the middle vowels of some words in one line might sound the same. We call that ‘assonance’. That would be another secret string. So I say, why not call yourself a ‘poem detective’ and go in search of the poems’ secret strings? Remember that strings can be about meaning and pattern. So, for example, a poem might have lots of different words to do with ‘light’ or ‘lightness’. This means that there is a secret string running between them. And also remember that poets themselves do not always know the secret strings that they created! As you draw the secret strings on the poem, you can start to ask, why? Why is there this string? What does this secret string tell us about what the poem means or how the poem affects us? These last questions are very hard to answer and it doesn’t matter if they’re too hard. It’s the thinking about them that counts.
4. Another way to get into a poem is to not get into it!!! That is, instead of asking about the poem, you ask about yourself first. So you can say of a poem: ‘What does this poem remind me of? Is there anything that happened in my life or to people I know that is anything like what’s in the poem?’ This gets us to make connections between things in the poem and real life as we see it. You can follow that up with the question ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ ‘Why does it connect? What is it about the thing in the poem and my life that is similar?’ You can follow that with the question,
‘Is there anything I’ve read or seen on TV or in a film or in, say, a song, that I’m reminded of by something in the poem?’
This makes connections between things that have been written before. Now again, you can ask, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ What’s similar between the thing in the poem and the thing in the film or book or TV programme? What made me think that? When you put all this together – especially if you’re with several people, you start to build up a whole picture of connections between real life, poems, stories, films and TV. This helps ‘locate’ the poem and as the differences and similarities start to appear, so do meanings.
5. Another way to delve into poems is to imagine you are an interviewer and you can interview anybody in the poem, any object in the poem, the ‘persona’ of the poem (I’ll come back to that) or the poet. So you can write yourself several questions that you want to ask. Then you can turn tables and be the person, thing, persona or poet, and have a go at answering those questions. Quick note on ‘persona’: when it says ‘I’ in a poem or when we think of what’s in the poem as being ‘seen’ by someone, it’s best to think that that person is not the poet, but is a ‘persona’ that the poet has created. We have to remember that poets are like ventriloquists and the poem is spoken by the ventriloquist’s dummy, a character created by the poet who is not the poet him or herself. So, this interview technique is a great way to get to things about a poem that puzzle us or confuse us. If we do that with other people, not only do we find answers, but we also hear questions we didn’t think of asking! And that takes us into new areas we might not have thought about.
6. Another great thing to do with poems is to copy out bits we like and put them on our walls, in books, put them on notebooks on our phones, make tattoos out of favourite lines – any way of ‘clipping’ our favourite parts of poems.
7. Connected to this is learning poems by heart. There are many ways of doing this:just saying the poem over and over again, for example. You can do it by the cover-up method. You read it several times; you try to say it. The moment you can’t, you look, cover up, go back to the beginning, start again saying it out loud till you get stuck, go back….Keep on doing this for as long it takes to learn the poem.
8. You can start a poetry blog. Remember blogs can be as private or as public as you want. The blog could be ABOUT poems or include parts of poems or both.
9. One of the best ways to explore poems is to have a go at writing yourself. Some people think that writing poems is about learning techniques and applying them. You can try that. My view is that one of the best ways to get going with poems is slightly different: read a poem, think about it, say to yourself ‘I could write something like that’. Now think about that phrase ‘like that’. ‘Like that’ could mean that you’ll write a poem that sounds like that, so you could borrow the rhyme scheme, the pattern of the poem or the general sound of it. ‘Like that’ could mean that you could write about an emotion or feeling that’s in the poem. You could write about what seems to be the main thought of the poem or its ‘message’. You could write about something that was more what you might say is ‘triggered off’ by the poem you read. In other words, it’s not exactly ‘like that’ but more what was ‘suggested by’ the poem you read.
10. If you want to know what people like about your poems or if you want to see how people are affected by what you write, the best thing to do is find ways of sharing them. This could mean that you read them out loud to them, send the poems to them, or maybe put them on that blog I mentioned. You could also publish them as booklets, pin them up on the wall, put them on a social media site.