The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt
You won’t find ‘metrophobia’ in the OED yet, but plenty of other places will tell you it means the fear of poetry – not underground railways!
Now, I’ve always appreciated an occasional poem: I read the ones in the TLS each week; I can still remember lots of childhood favourites just about off-pat; I ‘did’ Catullus for O-level!; I’ve enjoyed hearing poems read aloud as part of an event; I look up quotations – but that’s all done in passing. It is extremely rare for me to sit down and read a book of poetry, to explore metre, rhyme and syntax, to think about the author’s intent beyond enjoying the moment (or not). For the record though, in the ten years of this blog, I have written thirteen posts about poetry – from Beowulf to my own haiku – so it’s not so shabby.
Why haven’t I read more? Perhaps it’s because poetry is such a condensed form, that it requires a different kind of concentration and reading to my usual fare. I’m definitely put off reading classic poetry, knowing I’ll miss many of the allusions not being an English graduate nor having read a lot of the ‘canon’. Thus I would describe myself as having a mild to medium case of metrophobia, making Joe Nutt’s book the ideal companion to persuade me to give poetry a proper go.
Joe Nutt is a former English teacher who has written several books on classic poets and now writes for the TES. The Point of Poetry is designed to inspire metrophobes everywhere that poetry is worth reading and life enriching, but most importantly – to go and search out poetry to read. After his introduction, the next twenty-two chapters take one poem each – and they cover the whole range – from English classics right up to those recently written. In most of the chapters, the poem being discussed is reproduced at the end, but before it, Nutt introduces us to the author, the poem itself and its position in the literary world before dissecting it in a gentle way. He discusses some of the techniques the poet uses, from simple rhyme and alliteration to enjambment (where lines run on from each other). But it’s much more than that, he wants us to think about how the poems make us feel too and uses personal anecdote alongside the lit crit. All is done with a great sense of humour – this is no stodgy academic text – and he’ll tweak our emotions shamelessly too.
The poems chosen gradually increase in complexity in one way or another, be it in language or form. We begin with a safe classic – Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…’) and progress through a series of dead poets dotting around the centuries, including Edward Thomas’s elegiac Adlestrop, and Blake’s The Tyger. It was all good stuff, but I did begin to wonder where he was taking us.
Then, in chapter eight, we meet our first very much alive poet – Carol Ann Duffy. The poem he chooses is Mrs Midas from her 2000 collection The World’s Wife in which wives of famous or infamous, fictional or real men tell their version of their husband’s stories. I hugely enjoyed this essay in which he discussed breaking down poetry cliques as he found a video of Duffy reading the poem in a posh department store to a rapt audience, but can’t but disagree with him over his comment that to write a whole book of poems from these golf widows’ and trophy wives’ points of view could be viewed as ‘disingenuous’. Why not? I say!
I adored the poem he chose by Hollie McNish a few chapters later: Famous for What? This was my first encounter with McNish, although I’d read some of the many column inches by those who don’t call her style of poetry proper. I say to them, ‘Shut up!’ I loved it – and I’m nearly 59, not some young thing who lives on Instagram. This poem was clever and witty, it had so much internal rhythm and rhyme, particularly when read aloud (or read aloud in one’s head).
Other contemporary choices include poems by Rita Dove – The Bistro Styx – which was brilliant, but to appreciate fully required more remembrance of Greek myth that I could manage on my own without Nutt’s help, and one called The Gun by Vicki Feaver. This latter poem is one that Nutt has problems with, (rifle v shotgun mix-up – bullets v shot, which I don’t expect I’d’ve noticed – but will forever more!), but felt worth including due to its emotional impact.
Then, it’s mostly back to classics, which he hopes we’ll see with eyes anew, having been coached how to read them (I can’t see myself ever reading Wordsworth’s lengthy Prelude, but Thomas Hardy is a definite maybe). I could have done with his advice on how to read Gerald Manley Hopkins many years ago – I was on a public speaking course, and was given one of his poems to read and practice breathing on!
The star poem in the whole book for me though was Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney. The contrast in the two verses between gorging on the ripe berries and those picked going mouldy so quickly was just so true, but wonderfully put.
I did feel it was a shame, that for whatever reasons – permissions and cost thereof?, it wasn’t possible to print all the poems in the book – notably the Ted Hughes one The Tractor. Obviously, I only expected extracts of the longer classic poems, but it would have been nice to read the Hughes here. However I will forgive the author for this editorial quibble, as he has succeeded in reducing, indeed possible curing me of my metrophobia, for since reading this book, I have read three books of poetry by: Deborah Levy, Joe Dunthorne and Hollie McNish, all of which I have really enjoyed. And I got several more out of the library!
In conclusion, I found this book really entertaining – I liked the mixture of anecdote woven in. I have also learned a lot from it. I haven’t directly quoted from the book in the review above, but it is full of great one and two-liners – to finish here are a few.
…when you make that decision to read a poem, you should also be prepared to have your own views or opinions tested.
So much successful verse is successful because it exploits our shared culture. Which is why the more you read, the more you enjoy reading.
…. take that live element away and look at what’s written, and a whole raft of questions crop up that a live performance alone cannot answer. (on McNish)
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner wanders in and out of the natural and spiritual world like a hippy backbacker with no compass but a bag full of mushrooms.
The price poets like Milton and T.S. Eliot pay for their use of other writers is fewer readers. Which is why they shout louder on the bus.
Source: Review copy from the publisher – thank you.
Joe Nutt, The Point of Poetry (Unbound, March 2019), hardback, 288 pages.