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


Peter Leyland said…
Ah Neil, you have his on a great interest of mine in you blog this morning - poetry!

Having come of age to the tune of The Mersey Sound of three poets in the 60s I am a great lover of performance poetry. I recently watched a film about young people performing Slam Poetry at an FE college in Leeds and then going to a competition in Washington DC. Most were girls - That, I'm sure would make your daughter sit up.

On of the main problems with poetry is that it is taught taught badly as it sounds like you were and I was years ago in a formal grammar school setting. You mention engineering and structure and we can have that too in poetry. I'm sure you are aware of the 14 line structure and rhyming pattern of the sonnet. This can be beautiful and I have written sonnets myself when I needed to explain chaotic emotions.

There is also much to be said for free verse but often that comes of poets playing with structure like a builder might design a new house while keeping a secure foundation. e. e. cummings is one of the most well-known for this.

This is beginning to sound like a lesson so I'd better stop but thanks for getting me thinking.

Neil McGowan said…
Thanmks, Peter, and you're right - I was taught (or perhaps had the teacher's choice forced on me) very badly. I still struggle with reading it, but am coming to appreciate it more in spoken form, and that was the point of this blog - forcing poetry (or anything, really) on someone and insiisting they will like it generally has the opposite effect :)
Griselda Heppel said…
I'm appalled you were made to learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That is an extremely long poem and I can't imagine how anyone can learn the whole thing by heart. It's also a difficult read, guaranteed to put young people off poetry for life. Your teacher would have done much better to introduce your class to the most famous verses, with their fabulous, spine chilling images eg 'And slimy things that crawled with legs Upon a slimy sea...' Brr makes me shiver just thinking it.

Think your daughter makes a good point. I've just tried to read Tam O'Shanter. Um... the words are difficult and archaic, and it's a long poem (though not as long as the Ancient Mariner). Probably amazing if read and acted aloud! Accompanied of course by a generous helping of haggis and neeps and malt whisky.
Neil McGowan said…
Thanks, Griselda, I think you've hit it on the head :) I was 14 at the time, and much more interested in the work of Stephen King and James Herbert. But I agree that everything is better with haggis and a good malt...
Ruth Leigh said…
This made me smile. From time to time, I tutor GCSE students and I always kick off by asking them how much they loathe poetry. Once they realise I won't be cross, they sigh and say they hate it and can't see the point. I then ask them what they think a poem is and hit them right between the eyes with "An Unusual Cat Poem" by Wendy Cope. All of them end up liking it and even writing it, because it's meant to be fun and there is so much modern fab poetry out there. We were taught well at school, fortunately, but memorising the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Why??
Neil McGowan said…
Hi Ruth, I agree - I was talking about this last night and my younger daughter piped up she'd enjoyed the poem Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah which proves the point. In my case, the teacher had a serious love of the classics and seemed to think this would rub off on us via osmosis. Over the years, I've come to terms with the fact I'll never be the biggest fan of poetry but I do appreciate it much more now. I've even tried writing it (very badly - I doubt I'd ever make a poet. As a teacher myself (adults, not children), I've never been a fan of just memorising anything - I prefer to get people thinking about things rather than just being able to regurgitate things with no understanding, which sounds like how you were taught :)
Peter Leyland said…
Hi Neil, barrelling into this conversation again. I too teach adults, mainly poetry and novels (for the WEA) and have seen a distinct appreciation from them of how we teach poetry nowadays. I've used the Liverpool performance poets, Benjamin Zephaniah, and even Bob Dylan in a session on Ballads and Balladeers! Things really have changed. Eden who writes on this blog also knows about Slam poetry in Canada I think.

And now Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of Joe Biden. It's all happening for poetry.
Reb MacRath said…
Fine post, Neil. It struck home for me because recently I spent a month trying to make sense of a long, obscure poem by Auden: The Age of Anxiety. Since he's one of my favorite poets--a master of form and pyrotechnics--I'd always blamed myself for not being able to 'get' it. So I ordered a hardcover text with a terrific Introduction and line notes at the back. One month later, I was left to wonder: why should I spend any more time on something that failed to move me or delight me except for a handful of brilliant lines?

But the editor/explicator, Alan Jacobs, had written a brilliant Intro that let me to check out his writings. And I learned that he's a firm proponent of reading for pleasure and has written a book on that subject. Hey, I think I'll order it!

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