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Words and poetry and me


It’s no surprise that last week’s post by Isabel Rogers on What a Poet can teach a Novelist was a huge hit. The idea for the post came from the input Isabel R has given me with my writing and to judge by the reaction, she could probably have set up a specialist editorial consultancy by now if she wasn’t so busy being Hampshire Poet.

Last week I felt I had too much to say about poetry to fit in an intro. In the interim I doubted that I had anything to say at all – I was experiencing the common phenomenon of being intimidated by the sheer thought of it. Indeed I foresaw this with my intention to call the post Why I’m not afraid of poetry any more. I changed the title when I realised my personal history with poetry is not about fear. It’s all about words.

Even so, let’s get the fear over with. Sure, there is poetry that is dense with symbolism and philosophising. Bulging with references historical, mythological and literary. (Not saying this is a bad thing, by the way.) There is poetry that is obscure, pretentious and frankly up its own arse – the kind that makes you wonder if you need to be a brooding frock-coat-wearing opium eater to appreciate it.

But a lot of poetry deals with joy, love, desire, identity, sorrow, grief, loss, the passage of time and all the situations that give rise to these – the human condition, in short. That’s all of us, not just toffs in towers. That’s life, and as IR says, it’s poems that are read at weddings and funerals, not prose. I wonder if, despite the importance of collective themes in long form fiction, novel excerpts are too strongly embedded in character/point of view and their own story to deliver the universal resonance and intensity poetry can bring to such occasions.

I have no aspirations to write poetry (I don’t like rules) but it has regained its early hold on me after a break of twenty years between leaving college, where I studied some French and German poets as part of my degree course, and starting to write fiction seven years ago. When I tried to think how all this began I realised it didn’t start with poetry at all, but with my fascination with words. Ever since I learned to talk I have had all of the following: favourite words, hated words, words that didn’t feel right, words I couldn’t pronounce having only ever seen then written down, a fascination with the shape, sound or rhythm of words unrelated to their meaning. (And French words.) As a child I would often throw a newly discovered word into conversation with no idea what it meant, a kind of ‘trying it out for size’ and, if you have a parent who is a teacher, a daily form of masochism. And even if your other parent is a man of few words, calling someone in the village you don’t like a cunt at the age of ten is a way to render him speechless.

Even today I sometimes fiddle with a sentence for ages only to realise the pivotal word doesn’t have quite the right sense – a poet would not make that mistake. And as anyone who writes sex scenes as I do knows, there is never a better time to linger over your choice of words – which is not the same as being scared of them. I don’t like the aforementioned (with apologies to Chaucer) but I do like fuck. Orgasm doesn’t look all that pretty but it’s sensual by association, whereas the ‘polite’ word for giving yourself one is too ugly to mention. Isabel R mentioned the Bad Sex Award in passing and although I think it’s juvenile and mean-spirited it does point to the danger for a novelist of trying to be poetic instead of just saying it. Or saying it without saying it…

Something I have learned from talking to Isabel R and from re-engaging with poetry (and from writing short fiction) is that close scrutiny of every word, every line, pays off just surely as clonkiness stands out. We live in an age where at any moment someone can tweet a screenshot of a page inviting ridicule (or praise, but not usually) out of context. For me it’s not about trying to please everyone (you know you can’t); it’s about trying to reconcile writing from the heart with writing ‘with due care and attention’. Sloppy writing is the number one reason I abandon novels.

You may be thinking, ‘For God’s sake, is she actually going to mention any poets?’ Hinting at knowledge greater than I possess, I hereby present my Top Ten poetry-related discoveries:

Baudelaire – I’ve written about him before and am sure he’s played a part in my fascination for beauty in/and ugliness as well as providing the epigraph (from My Heart laid bare) and inspiration for my novel.

Seamus Heaney’s Two Lorries – for its quietly devastating power. From a beginners’ writing class at City Lit.

Frank O’Hara – whom I discovered because Don Draper in Mad Men was reading Meditations on an Emergency.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. The sonnet displayed at the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There’s something very powerful about NY immigration stories – plenty of Costellos passed through Ellis Island including several of my great-uncles.

Poems on the Underground – we need more public initiatives of this kind to reach people who might not read poetry in any other situation.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet – which I discovered because Lady Gaga has a quote from it tattooed on her arm. Obligatory reading (not just that bit). “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

The Cost of Living by Isabel Rogers which I can’t leave out even though I mentioned it last week. This poem touched me deeply and gave me courage to take action when I was struggling with a very difficult situation.  Many of you were similarly moved.

Iris by John Rzeznik, performed by the Goo Goo Dolls, soundtrack to City of Angels – OK, it’s a song not a poem but one of the most gorgeous and romantic word concoctions ever.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, 3 September 1802 by William Wordsworth ‘Earth hath not anything to show more fair…’ for our shared love of London.

Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas. No explanation required.

What are your words and poems?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


7 thoughts on “Words and poetry and me

  1. John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ – which I first read at A-level, and which inspired me to take Donne as my special Author for Finals, and then as the main subject of my doctorate:

    As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
    Whilst some of their sad friends do say
    The breath goes now, and some say, No:

    So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
    ‘Twere profanation of our joys
    To tell the laity our love.

    Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
    Men reckon what it did, and meant;
    But trepidation of the spheres,
    Though greater far, is innocent.

    Dull sublunary lovers’ love
    (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
    Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

    But we by a love so much refined,
    That our selves know not what it is,
    Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

    Our two souls therefore, which are one,
    Though I must go, endure not yet
    A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to airy thinness beat.

    If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two;
    Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if the other do.

    And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth roam,
    It leans and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

    Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
    Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun.

    Posted by katejarmstrong | January 20, 2016, 15:21
  2. I don’t think I can take all this credit you’re heaping on my shoulders, but I’m chuffed to bits you’re rediscovering poetry. Like any form, there are good and bad bits. The trick is knowing which is which …

    Posted by isabelrogers | January 20, 2016, 15:23
  3. Great post… I don’t mind poetry making me think & consider what issue, situation, message lies within – but as you so rightly say, not the ‘up your arse’ style… which contributed for so long to me thinking I wasn’t posh enough for poetry😶

    I really enjoy some of the contemporary female poets: Jo Shapcott & Vicki Feaver poems for their edge & sharpness; Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife is so clever yet still comical; Jackie Kay also captures comedy but poignancy too, seemingly so lightly- I was lucky enough to hear her read from Maw Broon’s Monologues – fab!; and I admire how Frieda Hughes tackles issues with searing honesty.

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | January 20, 2016, 19:00
  4. Yes, I’m turning back to poetry – reading & writing – and I think it’s edging out of the shadow into the sun. Which is nice!

    Posted by jacpye | January 20, 2016, 21:10
  5. Love the idea of trying words out for size without quite knowing their meaning. Atavistic was mine. Had no idea what it meant, but liked the sound.

    Archipelago will forever live in infamy for me. Not because I didn’t know what it meant, but because I pronounced it archy-pell-argo. To my tutor while reading out an essay referencing the Gulag Archipelago. She laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.

    And serious is a word that for years I muddled with series. My parents’ fault, obviously. There was a toy shop in Berwick called The Border Series, which they hilariously referred to as the border serious because of the serious consequences to behaviour and wallets if we ever went in.

    As for poetry, it’s Keats for me. Dreamy swoon.

    Posted by Caroline Waterer (@CarolineWaterer) | January 21, 2016, 11:02
  6. Hey Isabel,

    Interesting to hear your thoughts. I don’t think writing poetry in general involves much rules. It’s just the rigid-form stuff that imposes those kinda restrictions. I find poetry more open to experimentation/freedom than fiction, and I love how the form/structure of a poem can be used to echo its theme/subject (which is much trickier in fiction, I’d say). Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Trevor

    Posted by Trevor Conway | January 23, 2016, 21:33
  7. Yes, The Goo Goo Dolls. That’s a great song. I’ve always thought pop music is a great route into poetry for younger readers, helping to make that association rather than the toffs-in-towers one. If your Spanish is up to it there’s a song called Cuidandote by Bebe that is quite possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. And it is beautiful.
    It’s a fairly common touchstone I guess but Edwin Morgan’s Strawberries is one of my favourites. I can remember my English teacher at school with his feet up on the desk reading it to the class, followed by one of those rare moments of stillness and a faint airing of Jo Bell’s ‘Poetry Noise’. I love Brain Patten’s work, too. I think he would agree with you on writing about sex and revelling in rather being shy of or cowed by words.

    Posted by Van Demal | January 25, 2016, 14:11

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