Why I like poetry

Friday 2nd September 2011

GARY, we called him. Mr Grayson. A calm command of both Auden’s alliteration and spotty youths. His deliveries seemed to grip the air, gift-wrapped, plucked from secret orchards, stolen from virgin caves; he too a ‘goat-footed balloonMan’, resplendent in the colours of cummings, ‘with up so floating many bells down’.

“But it doesn’t make sense, sir,” we moaned; at first.

Nor do mushrooms make sense, or bombs, or black holes, or those feelings you get when somebody is hurt or when snow falls. ‘So it goes,’ as one of my favourite prose writers has it.

I let poetry go when theatre and Gladys Knight pulled me on to midnight trains, into different undergrowths. Guess it hung around, in a back pocket. Never really occurred to me that Shakespeare, Brecht and Beckett were actually poets.

It pulses with paradox, poetry. Such tight rules; and yet none. Troublingly unpredictable, like climates and circus acts. Some favourite opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

There is a kind of love called maintenance

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked

Scribbled some verses after leaving teaching; reached for shelves, removed blinkers; heard Duffy and Rosen, met Holub and Heaney. They write with cuckoo elbows, spider knees, unorthodox chins. Always are there more questions than aspirins.

(I’ve probably used that phrase before, but repetition is part of the repertoire.)

Still think I’m serving an apprenticeship, when it comes to verse. Prose flows more evenly on a screen, whereas poetry demands paper, cross crossings-out, and solitude.

Nowadays I especially like listening to it: lines drifting or bouncing, images that linger, like up-so balloons. Which is why I rave about the volley of vocabulary in Matt Harvey’s Thwok, as agile and accurate as any fierce Wimbledon rally.

And I love it when kids get it. Like that ten-year-old girl, staring at a covering of autumn leaves in a park in Swindon and quietly suggesting:

“Cornflakes?”

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