Engaging with Language and Literature by Neil McGowan
I was listening to the radio the other day and wondering what to write about for this month's blog when I heard a programme about books, poetry, and literature in general, and it got me thinking. There's a lot of noise being made here in the UK about how children engage (or perhaps don't) with reading, and especially with poetry.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I struggle with a lot of poetry. I couldn't see myself going out and buying a book of poetry, not when there are so many unread prose novels to get through. Yet I'll happily listen to poetry when read aloud, and it's rare for me to dislike it. The problem is it rarely manages to evoke much of an emotional response in me. I can admire the language, and the cleverness of rhyme, but that's about as far as it goes, for me. It doesn't make me feel anything. But I am aware that the issue lies with me, and not with poetry per se.
See, for me, as an engineer, I like things to have logic, form, and structure, something that prose (generally) has. I find the more abstract nature of poetry hard to grasp. I have a similar problem with a lot of high-brow modern literature – it's all very well to do clever things with words and use big long posh ones to impress, but give me the damn story! If nothing much is happening, chances are I'll move on to another book.
'A challenging read' was one of the phrases that stuck with me from that programme. It was used in the context of trying to promote more literary works over genre fiction. That was where I started to disagree. I have no problem with challenging oneself with a piece of writing, but to focus on that alone misses the point – what happened to reading for pleasure?
I (happily) write genre fiction, and the goal for me is to make the story entertaining for the reader and keep them turning the page. Here's the rub: Easy reading is generally hard writing, involving lots of polishing and careful word choice, just the same as when writing any work. I know lots of long and complicated words (Not good if you suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliaphobia*) but it's rare I'll use them if there's a simpler alternative. It's not because I don't think my readers would understand it (although that raises another question) but because I don't want them to be jerked out of the story because of the language.
It's just over a month since we celebrated Burns night here in Scotland, and both my children rolled their eyes in exasperation at it. To quote my eldest (she's 13): "Oh no, we're going to have to memorise Tam O'Shanter. Again. Why couldn't they choose something without spelling mistakes?"
After I'd finished chuckling at that (Burns's use of language is, after all, somewhat idiosyncratic to our ears today) I asked her what the issue was. The response surprised me – instead of "It's boring" or "But we do the same thing every year" which is what I expected, what she actually said was, "I don't feel anything when I read it. The words are too hard. Why couldn't they pick something more modern?" And my daughter loves to read – she's a big fan of crime fiction and is currently reading Francine Toon's Pine – so it's not an issue of comprehension.
It got me thinking back to my schooldays. I was forced to memorise Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and when I commented it was an okay story, but I'd prefer it not written in prose, I was castigated and told I needed to spend more time with the poem to understand it and begin to enjoy it. You might guess that this did not encourage me in the slightest (I stuttered my way through the bits I could remember and wrote a couple of sides of prose explaining why I didn't take anything from it – the teacher was not impressed).
But I suppose that's my point. If something's forced upon you, the natural instinct is to resist it. Instead of insisting on learning specific poems and demanding you enjoy them, why not take a wider view and look at other ways of stimulating an interest, such as reading about the poet's life, or the time they lived in. Something is bound to appeal and once an interest is sparked, it may well lead onto the poetry itself. It's an approach that could work in other areas as well – I remember when they tried to force me to play football at school; it turned an apathetic disinterest into an active dislike of the sport which still holds true today. There was a silver lining to it, though – I used to refuse to participate, resulting in being sent to sit on side. Naturally, I always had a book to hand, so it was an extra forty minutes reading time for me…
* Somewhat amusingly, the fear of long words