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In celebration of World Poetry Day, our English Programme Leader Lucy Andrew writes about getting to grips with, and learning to love, the art of poetry.

For a student of literature, poetry can seem terrifyingly impenetrable. For a scholar of literature, the same is often true. Confront me with a Shakespeare sonnet and I might be tempted, like Timms from The History Boys, to slam my head against a table and protest, ‘I don’t always understand poetry’. It’s true. I don’t. Poetry is scary. Every word, every syllable, every mark of punctuation is invested with some deep and mysterious meaning, taunting the uninitiated, who will never possess the tools to decode it. But there are ways in. There are tools at the disposal of those who are brave enough to venture into the great unknown.

Whilst studying for my undergraduate English Literature degree I was presented with a couple of very simple processes to follow when dealing with pesky poems: 1) Look for a central tension or conflict in the poem, particularly in the opening lines, and then see how this tension develops throughout the poem; 2) Think about the relationship between the form and content of the poem.

With this in mind, I could turn to a poem like William Blake’s ‘London’ from his Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) with fresh eyes:

                I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
                Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, 
                And mark in every face I meet
                Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Blake’s poetry may seem simplistic compared to the work of Shakespeare or Shelley but, for me, the strength of his work lies in its economy – the way in which he can express complex ideas, thoughts and feelings in so few words. In ‘London’, for example, Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ of ideological repression establish the poem’s powerful protest against the neglect and abuse of the common man, woman and child by exploitative institutions.

Yet not all poetry is so politically charged, nor does our reading of poetry have to take the form of a decoding of sorts. Poetry can be funny too, and immersive, and mundane, all at once. My absolute favourite poem is Kit Wright’s ‘Dad and the Cat and the Tree’ from his anthology Rabbiting On, and Other Poems (1978). It catalogues the botched rescue attempts of said cat from said tree by the hapless, but overconfident dad, with the disapproving mother looking on. I suppose I enjoy this poem so much because it has always conjured up images of my own dad attempting to extricate our next-door-neighbours’ conceited cat from one of the many awkward-to-access trees in our garden. The poem draws to a dramatic conclusion with Dad’s final rescue attempt:

                He gave a great leap

                And landed flat

                In the crook of the tree-trunk –

                Right on the cat!

               

                The cat gave a yell

                And sprang to the ground,

                Pleased as Punch to be

                Safe and sound.

 

                So it’s smiling and smirking,

                Smug as can be,

                But poor old Dad’s

                Still

 

                Stuck

                Up

                The

                Tree!

 

Years after I first encountered it, this poem is still stuck in my mind, just as Dad is still stuck up the tree. And, for me, that’s the true power of poetry.

If you’re interested in studying poetry as part of our English course at University Centre Shrewsbury you can come and learn more about the course on a Campus Tour or one of our upcoming Visit Days.

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