I always hated poetry. It’s a big drawback when your specialist subject is English Literature. I remember being forced to study Byron, Shelley and all the rest. I used to fantasize about inventing time travel so that I could go back and torture them. I would read their awful words to them as they roasted slowly on a spit. Just before they breathed their last, I would read Vogon poetry to them. Oh, I had it all planned.
Things didn’t improve when I did my degree. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it; I just hated it. I wrote very good essays on the poems I studied because I worked out what my lecturers wanted me to write. I understood that a good poem should have certain elements in it, so I knew what I was looking at. I didn’t have to enjoy it, did I?
Why did I hate it so much? Well, I think it wasn’t the poetry itself; it was the pretentious bollocks that went with it. My university lecturers would wax lyrical over forms and meanings and it left me cold. They dissected the greats as though studying the anatomy of a frog, which ruined the whole experience. They managed to make the poets sound like pretentious idiots.
To be fair, it wasn’t helped by the choice of pretentious idiots, sorry, poets on the syllabus. I would have preferred Roger McGough to Percy Bysshe Shelley any day of the week, but McGough was not considered high literature. I wish my lecturers had familiarized themselves with Bloody Poetry. It’s a brilliant play by Howard Brenton about Shelley and Byron, which exposes them for the arrogant, degenerate fops they really were.
Poetry seemed to be a very showy art form. The poets were saying, ‘look at me! I am clever! I can put words into some sort of order, and I can use the words from the arse-end of the dictionary that none of you plebs have heard of.” At least, that’s how it seemed to me. They weren’t writing for the likes of me; they were writing for an elite group of higher beings. Intellectual masturbation, that's what I'd call it.
I graduated with honours and a reinforced love of classic novels. I forgot the poetry completely. I didn’t look at a poem for ten years. I was forcibly dropped back into poetry when I began work in the theatre. One of the ladies on box-office duty fancied herself as a poet, and she did nothing whatsoever to dispel my loathing. To say she was pretentious was an understatement. On her Facebook page she would post her work, accompanied by a nauseating little status – ‘Everyone’s talking about Ann Boleyn, so I wrote this little poem.’ Show off! Stop trying to sound clever, it really doesn’t suit you. That might sound harsh, but she really was insufferable.
I was fortunate enough to meet the great Pam Ayres at the theatre. She did an evening of poetry, and really was a lovely lady. I was operating the lights for her show, and I thought she was brilliant. Her poems were funny and endearing, but, like Mr McGough, not worth considering by the literary elite. It was suggested some years ago that the public should choose Britain’s Poet Laureate, not the Queen. One of the objections put forward by the academics was, ‘if they vote, we’ll end up with Pam Ayres.’ What would be wrong with that? Why does poetry have to be high-falutin’ waffle?
This was the beginning of a change in my view. Not all good poetry has to be deep and tortuous. It can be lighthearted and funny. Poets don’t have to be dark, brooding ponces. I really don’t understand why the academics don’t see this. Pam Ayres’ grasp of form and metre is just as good, so why isn’t her work taught in schools?
I've now discovered a few more poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah who don't have delusions of grandeur, but I'm afraid it isn't quite enough to turn me into a poetry lover. I'll stick to prose, thanks very much, and leave the fancy stuff to people who think frilly shirts look good on a man.
ABOUT EMMA FAWSON