I started writing poetry a number of years ago after I experienced a very personal tragedy. I used poetry as a means of expressing my pain and loss. The poetry was, to be frank, dross, but it was a much-needed outlet. I wrote reams of poems, literally hundreds, and looking back now I can say without doubt that they were awful.
I was attempting to write poetry, but I was not a poet. I knew nothing about form or meter; I believed poetry should rhyme and had no idea what free verse was.
It was only when I started to read other poets that I began to appreciate how diverse an art poetry is. I started by reading the classic poets – Byron, Shelley et al. – and though I enjoyed their work, I was not entranced by it, it had no real meaning for me. I didn’t know that their works, wonderful though they are, were just some of the forms that poetry can take. I was ignorant still of the work of more recent poets.
My first encounter with great poetry came about by accident. I was stuck in a truck, riding from Manchester towards the port of Holyhead. It was night, mid-winter, and rain was falling slantwise. On BBC radio 4, the presenter was talking about poetry. He had some poets on his panel, and they were reading their own work but also the work of others. That was when I first heard Elizabeth Bishop’s work. The poem on that occasion was Filling Station.
Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
Although I had been writing poetry for about three years at this stage, I had no idea that a poem could tell a story on many different levels. Outwardly, Bishop records her visit to the scene and the filling station, though she never reveals herself in the poem; she is simply the observer, the narrative voice. She comments coolly on the filth, the grease and oil, the raggedness of the operator and his sons. Yet the reader (or listener) takes more from the poem than just the surface scene. Bishop reflects on family, on love and homeliness, on how these things are found in the mundane plant, on how someone waters, and on the doily that someone embroidered, and even on the way the oilcans are stacked and arranged.
This was when it occurred to me that if I wanted to write poetry, I must also read it. And so I read everything I could find by Bishop – not much as it happens. She published a little over 100 poems in her lifetime! I had only been writing for three years and I had well over 500 poems already – or had I? Had I written any poems that I could hold up to the light and say this is a good, even important, poem? The answer was no.
I had written poems that were important to me, and that was fine; after all, I had been writing for myself. But something else happened when I first encountered Elizabeth Bishop. I was struck by a belief that I could do better, that I could write poetry not just for myself but for an audience. But the truth is that writing for others is way harder than writing for yourself. I went in search of inspiration. I purchased a few books of poetry but found nothing that spoke to me the way Bishop had and for some time afterwards I continued to write poetry without reading the work of other poets.
I have learned since that it is not unusual for young, and not so young, poets to not read poetry. Some argue that they do not want their muse influenced by other poets while others claim, as I did, that they aren’t able to find poetry they truly like. I did try: I bought books, I trawled the library but most of what I read seemed irrelevant. I didn’t care enough about the subject matter or I found the language outdated. A lot of what I read was form poetry, I still didn’t know enough at that stage to know that there were differences in form and style. Of course, all of this happened before the internet was freely available, so my sources were the single local bookshop, the nearby library and the mobile library that visited our area weekly, but they stocked a limited supply of poetry books, so it took me some time to discover free-form.
When I finally did discover it, it was a revelation. Now here was a type of poetry that used language I understood! I read as much as I could and started to develop a taste for a certain type of poetry. I liked Yeats (once I wasn’t been compelled to read him at school), loved Seamus Heaney, and discovered Eavan Boland. Here was poetry anchored in the here and now, that was relevant to my life and my experience. Later, I discovered poets from beyond Ireland – Lorca, Neruda and later, those poets who would become my favourites, Joy Harjo, Helen Mort, Gregory Pardlo, Charles Simic, and those few others that now travel with me wherever I go.
Reading widely had another effect, too. When I had gorged on these poets, I found I had a greater appreciation for the poets I had dismissed, and Byron and Shelley now made more sense to me. Why? Because reading poetry more widely taught me how to read it. How to take time over the pause, how to appreciate the beauty of a line or a word, and how the poet uses them. And, my writing improved. Not hugely, not to the extent that I would ever call myself a true poet, but I became competent, I was confident enough to send some work out, and was surprised and delighted when some of it was published.
So does reading the work of other poets improve your own ability as a writer? Yes, I believe so, but you must find work that resonates with you, poets who speak to you on a level beyond the mere words on the page. And that is not easy. For me, the initial difficulty was accessibility: my sources were limited. Now the problem is the complete opposite: with the internet we are drowning in poetry, some of it good and much of it awful.
You may have to search to find a poem or a poet that clicks with you in the same way that Elizabeth Bishop clicked with me. And to complicate matters, there’s so much poetry out there now that it’s hard to find that something that clicks. It’s so easy to publish now that a lot of the available work has not had the benefit of a strong editor and much of it is amateurish, and I believe, written by poets who have not taken the time to read the work of others.
How does a lack of reading show in a poet’s work?
There is no dictum that every poet must read others’ poetry. There’s no rule that says every person who writes poetry must read poetry. Plenty of hobbyist poets write solely for themselves and that is fine. Many find catharsis in this endeavour and I am not here to malign them. This article is addressed rather to the emerging poet who wants to write for others.
Reading of any sort will strengthen you hand as a writer, it will broaden your vocabulary and expose you to new ideas and provide stimuli and inspiration for your own work. When you don’t read, the effects show in your work, is remains clumsy in the same way as the joinery of an apprentice carpenter who pays no heed to his master remains clumsy.
There are many visible signs of this clumsiness. Ask any magazine or journal editor and they will certainly mention, for instance, forced rhyme, broken meter, forced language and unnecessary wordiness.
You will hear the same excuses from the poets who do not take time to read:
- ‘I want my poetry to remain pure, editing dilutes the spontaneity.’
- ‘My poems just come to me.’
- ‘I never plan a poem, it just happens.’
These are the poets who do not edit, believing that the first draft of their work is the purest and that their muse delivers poems fully formed. Their poems are often unrefined, sometimes riddled with typos; these are the poets who do not read poetry.
I know that some people will read this and their heckles will rise, they will disagree strongly, and in doing so will not realise that they are proving my point. To them I say, please put your notions aside for a month, go read some poetry, seek out poets whose words, style and message resonates with you, then find another and another. Make these your teachers and watch how your work improves.
Thank you for reading.