Dealing with Metrophobia

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.

Joe Nutt author photo

…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.

See also reviews by: Rebecca, Paul and Joules.

Source: Review copy from the publisher – thank you.

Joe Nutt, The Point of Poetry (Unbound, March 2019), hardback, 288 pages.

BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

19 thoughts on “Dealing with Metrophobia

  1. Café Society says:

    When I was teaching primary the children and I read poetry all the time. We had a daily slot where anyone could bring a poem they’d enjoyed and read it to the rest of us. We wrote poetry regularly as well, always concentrating on form rather than a subject. (Nothing is worse than being told what you have to write about). Since then I’ve read almost nothing. Perhaps I should reinstate the daily spot, even if I am only reading it to myself.

  2. Elle says:

    Ooh Annabel you should read Kate Clanchy’s forthcoming memoir about teaching English in comps – she uses poetry all the time and encourages her pupils to write their own (they’ve won several national competitions), and she’s such a good ambassador for poetry! Her Twitter is good too:

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    Shame it’s coming out a little too late for my older son’s English GCSE, as he has been struggling with his poetry module (ironic, no? but he won’t discuss it with me at all) – maybe for the second son, who hasn’t got a poetic bone in his body.

  4. Calmgrove says:

    I absolutely share your anxieties about poetry. I’m a miniaturist at heart, haiku I can manage, but longer stuff is a closed door for me—finely crafted works are to me like cryptic crosswords on the page, requiring the same amount of attention to detail and alertness to nuance and context. It can so easily turn to sensory overload in my brain.

    That said I do appreciate it in concentrated amounts when the occasion demands. I too liked the Heaney blackberry poem when we studied it in creative writing class, and I gave a plausible creative response to it on one of my other blogs — — and
    here you may also find some other scribblings. But I’ll never make Poet Laureate!

  5. Dosanjh says:

    This is the kind of book I would buy to help non-poetry lovers understand the attraction and potency of it. As a poetry lover myself I embrace anything, which could possibly encourage others to delve into it and find a little bit of beauty too.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve found I have upwards of two feet of poetry books – most of which I’ve never looked at, but at least half are anthologies. I think I’ll relish reading the 20th/21st C stuff, but am still more nervous like you of the rest (bar Shakey and Catullus and their ilk).

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    I really do need to read this: I “did” Catullus, too (but bowdlerised by our teacher!!) and love Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope, John Hegley, Simon Armitage and Atilla the Stockbroker but not much else …

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s certainly broadened my poetry horizons, Liz. Our school Catullus was bowdlerised too, but I read a proper translation afterwards.

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