By Billie Manning, Poet & City Lit Tutor
On bringing forth the treasures that are hidden inside of you: some practical and reflective tips on overcoming your fear of reading and writing poetry.
Forget the ‘canon’
It's impossible to ignore the prejudices built into the perceived and often real inaccessibility of poetry. We are often taught that we must be able to infer personal meaning from the very certain and specific set of rules, words, and phrases that make up the ‘canon’ of poetry, which often refers to a singular context of race, sexuality, gender, and class rarely shared by the reader.
So here is a tip to start you off: find your own way into poetry. Make your own canon. Read poems that come out of your world. They are good and worthy. Find and adore the meaning they hold for you. And then expand, explore the worlds of others.
Stop worrying about getting it wrong
Poetry is not a riddle to be solved - not in the way we're taught in school, with a singular answer to be discovered like a cryptic crossword clue. Yes, poetry is about inference. Reading is about inference. But the best 'inferences’ taken from poems are surprising and unusual, so don’t be ashamed if you glean something from a poem nobody else seems to.
You don’t need a secret guide. Just read. Context always helps here too – it is not cheating to learn autobiographical details or the wider political context of the place and time a poem was written in.
Read about others’ writing journeys.
Now that you’ve had a taste of poetry, I hope you are slightly less scared of reading. But what about writing? What Jack Gilbert called ‘bringing forth the treasures hidden within you’? There are more treatises on the whys and hows of writing than I could ever pay tribute to here, and if you are anything like me you will need to chew a few before you can get anywhere close to setting off. Anne Lamott wrote about taking it bird by bird. Patti Smith wrote of devotion. Susan Sontag said a writer pays attention to the world. From these many writers, you can learn about what it is to love writing, what it is to escape the curse of perfectionism, to conquer the shame that comes from within, how to pay real attention.
When you’ve read about others’ whys, discover your own.
Why are you reading this? If you are reading this, you probably want to do it. Sit down, reach for the stillness within you and slit it open – what's in there? What is burning in there? What is eating at you? Ask yourself: where does your joy for words come from? Again: why are you reading this? That’s the first thing I want you to go and write after you read this. Why did you search for this? Why did you click on this? Why did you read to the end? What do you want? Why do you want it?
Now I invite you to read more, this time with your writing in mind. It’s much more difficult to fear the known than the unknown. You will read poems you love, that meld themselves to the very blood in your veins, and that will help coax out your passion. You will read poems that disgust or confuse you, and you will realise it is ok for your own poems to disgust or confuses you. And at one point, you will come to a poem that you like – that is inked on a page in a book you can buy from a shop or put in a virtual cart on a webpage – and you will think, that kind of sounds like me. And you won’t think that poem is somewhere I can never reach. You will think, I like that - and it kind of sounds like me. And then you will know that you can write too.
Start with something restricting.
It is almost impossible to sit down and ‘just write’. Almost all of my work comes from prompts and workshop activities. I find the most restricting ones the most pleasing – when a challenge comes to use these ten exact words in a poem, I restrict myself to using them in that exact order - because in most cases, restriction equals productivity.
Here are a few ideas for you: write a haiku about your toothbrush. Write a poem without the letter ‘a’. You can make these up for yourself and you can find them scattered all over the internet. Don’t oversaturate yourself, though. Pick one quickly, get going, and don’t worry about the quality. Developing your poetry, advancing it, making it do little dances on the tabletop wearing a tea-cosy for a hat, that all comes later. For now, just write.
Would you expect someone with a passion for ballet to just watch a few YouTube videos of Darcey Bussell and then start pirouetting in their kitchen? No, but for some reason, writers are expected not to need any classes, any help at all. This is a nauseating hangover from the idea of divine inspiration
Start yourself off on a little beginner course and use the sparks and fizzing of other eager minds to help you wade through the meanings of poems. Make sure you research the course and the tutor first - do you want to read contemporary poetry or the classics? Do you want to focus on developing your form? There are an incredible number of high-quality workshops out there – you can do an entire course on writing poetry about TV if you want.
Hold on to your precious spark. Not many people on the planet are pushed into poetry by fierce parents or cultural pressure. Most of us have found it all by ourselves and that is something to be deeply treasured. Yes, it takes a while to crack open. But it spills absolute joy from the opening, and it never closes.
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Billie Manning is a poet and teacher. She teaches poetry courses at City Lit, was a Barbican Young Poet 2020, and was most recently published in the Bad Betty anthology Field Notes On Survival.