Every Saturday morning as a child, I would climb on a bus and take a twenty-minute journey into the centre of a small Midlands town to visit the local library. Library cards, small rectangles of pastel-coloured cardboard tucked into a little wallet inside any book you wished to loan, were priceless tickets to different places, journeys only made possible because of the books stacked so neatly on those polished wooden shelves. Those cards were precious. The first responsibility I ever carried. The best part of the entire morning would be taken up reading and browsing, often kneeling on the hard parquet floor surrounded by a small heap of books, until a final choice was made and I climbed back on a bus clutching a new batch of books. To this day I have to drag myself out of any bookshop. There is some- thing deliciously seductive about all those book spines staring at you, all the unknown worlds trapped between those hidden covers. Reading fiction is the closest you or I will ever get to time travel.
Those early books were a complete mishmash. I was as fasci-
nated by books about practical things – sport, the countryside,
the point of poetry flags and knots – as I was by fiction. It wasn’t until early in my secondary schooling that I was properly and skilfully introduced to poetry. Like most children, I knew what verse was, of course, through nursery rhymes and songs, but this unique form of human expression, poetry, was entirely new to me, and in the hands of some skilled teachers I realised, from those initial les- sons, that it mattered.
This book is for all those who never got it, those hordes of metrophobes who are perfectly happy living in cities or travelling by Tube but who, for whatever reason, poetry passed by like a bad Samaritan. Most will never even know they suffer from this common ailment, that metrophobia has nothing to do with cities or underground railways and is simply a fear of poetry. I was lucky. In my case, good teaching led to studying English litera- ture at university, two decades teaching the subject in schools and writing books about arguably the three greatest English poets: William Shakespeare, John Donne and John Milton. But my career has been shared between schools and business, and the business half has brought me into contact with hundreds of educated, intelligent, successful adults for whom poetry remains almost anathema. Make the slightest allusion to it in conver- sation over a drink at a hotel bar, any evening after you’ve all finished sitting through meetings, editing a pack of slides or juggling figures on a spreadsheet, and you will see the fear twinkle in their eyes.
This book doesn’t seek to complain about that, or to discuss
the reasons why it happens. Instead what it aims to do is to show all those left sitting bruised and battered on the roadside when poetry passed them by at school what they’ve been missing. That’s why I called the book The Point of Poetry.
When I taught, I inevitably found myself facing questions about what poetry was. Children like to categorise. It makes them feel safer and poetry is one of the things they struggle with. A poem is not quite a song and not quite a story. It doesn’t look like anything most children are used to seeing on a page, yet it’s in exactly the same language as every other lesson and textbook. Even mediocre poetry is dense and difficult. Children can’t resist an urge to know what a poem means. At first I would answer their questions with the usual range of tactics and responses any English teacher would employ: for example, I stressed poetry was something you needed to hear aloud and listen to. But after some years, appreciating that what they needed was something to latch on to, I added something of my own. Poetry, I would say, is all about economy. Poets pack meaning into few words. No other kind of writer does this. Poems are like fireworks stuffed full, not with exotic chemicals, but with ideas. When you read them, you light the touchpaper. This book is all about lighting the touchpaper.
In it I have chosen a number of famous and not so famous
poems. They stretch from Shakespeare to the present day, although instead of chronological order, I’ve used my teaching experience to link one poem to the next. So although looking back, a reader might be able to discern an overall movement from easy to difficult, from short to long poems, hopefully what you will feel as you read the book is a sense of growing confi- dence and excitement, which comes from the connections between poems and poets. Knowledge isn’t built on sand, and secure steps in the right direction are better than leaps in the dark. Midway through the book you may find the journey even becomes a little bumpy where I’ve included two or three con- temporary poems that are not easily enjoyed without facing up to some difficult hurdles for any reader. This is deliberate because it would be deceitful of me to encourage you to read and delight in poetry but only offer you poems I personally admire and value. If you accept my invitation, and I hope you do, you will in- evitably read some poetry that disappoints you. In some ways it’s how you react to that experience, what you stand to gain from it, that is even more valuable and significant than the pleasure to be had from reading poetry that simply delights.
There are plenty of poets who don’t just toss a gauntlet down;
they take a firm grip on it before whacking it across your cheek with audible relish. You can offer them the other cheek if you wish. Personally, I prefer to pick the gauntlet up, because it’s then that poetry begins to impact on the language that you use and even the life that you lead. It’s that intense, often provocative engagement with the way language is being used by someone else that allows you to develop and refine your own word man- agement. We are what we eat may be how other people see us. It’s what we say and what we write that determines how they feel about us.
Although many of the poems are reproduced, most of the contemporary ones are not and this is definitively not a book of literary criticism for the kind of student expecting someone else to dissect specific poems word by word for them. That’s why where they are reproduced, they appear at the end of a chapter, not the beginning. By that time, my hope is, you will be just itching to read them.
Some you may have heard of, others, almost certainly not, but for each poem I have used the same simple process of taking it as the starting point for an essay about the world we all know and live in today. That’s what happens when you light the touchpaper. The poem ignites something in you about in the world you personally inhabit, the space you occupy in history and the people you have shared irreplaceable hours with. If any of these essays amuse, entertain, enlighten or delight you, then I will have done my job. But if they send you rushing to the end in search of the poem, to light its touchpaper for yourself, then I will quietly and secretly rejoice.
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
William Shakespeare (1554–1616)
The first Elizabethans took poetry, like religion, seriously. English was just beginning to establish itself as a language worthy both of art and its sly sibling, diplomacy. Latin was still the language of scholarship and international relations, but with the help of less courtly, regional men like Shakespeare, English was making leaps and bounds.
Shakespeare penned a whole bundle of sonnets, poems of fourteen lines with a set pattern of rhyme conventionally used by male poets in Europe to express love, which life experience suggests is often nothing more than an adolescent crush or fever- ish lust. Shakespeare scholars have built entire careers around analysing these poems and, especially, arguing over who they were written for, because in the world of the Elizabethan court, poetry was frequently written and sent to real people to impress them and gain their patronage, even, on occasion, to seduce them. John Donne famously had to ask his friends for some of his poems back because he didn’t keep copies. Why would he?
In recent years considerable effort has gone into arguing that Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, form an intelligible sequence and that most of them are addressed not to the dark lady you may well have heard of, but to a fair youth. Arguments about whether individual sonnets deal with heterosexual, homo- sexual or Platonic love are nothing new. Responding to them as a coherent sequence instead of reading the poems in isolation might be very appealing, but it relies entirely on how editors and publishers chose to number them, often many years after Shakespeare’s death. I’m always suspicious that the keenest par- ticipants in these sexual debates tend to ignore the obvious reality that Shakespeare wrote some of the most astonishingly insightful plays about heterosexual love at various stages of adult life any human being has ever managed to pen. So you can see straightaway why that childhood question – what does a poem mean? – can get us into all kinds of trouble today. We have mobiles, Twitter and shifting sexual agendas and debates. They had parchment, a quill and many more hours to kill.
Read any of Shakespeare’s sonnets without appreciating that
one day, around 400 years ago, a real, flesh and blood Elizabe- than unfolded a sheet of parchment and read it with pleasure, and you underestimate them. So when in Sonnet 18 he tells (let’s assume) some young lady that she is far more lovely and temper- ate than a summer’s day, it’s a reasonable guess that she was more touched than if he’d sent her a smiley face and a dick pic.
Elizabethan court life, centred geographically on Whitehall, just as the business of government is today, was also more risky than anything the current, power-crazed occupants of Number 10 face. Catholic and Protestant political disagreements pulsed through every vein of the English state, and one wrong word or sentiment could see you face a truly unpleasant and terrible death. So what you wrote required care. You thought long and hard before committing those thoughts to parchment. Consequently, your family and friends treated mail with great respect. Think of it a bit like this. Every third contributor to any Facebook thread about Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May would be carted away to the Tower of London for torture and an unthink- ably grim public execution. We live in less violently reactive times. Now it’s just Twitter and the tabloids who disembowel the innocent in public.
For generations, Sonnet 18 would have been thought of and
taught as an unusually clever, heterosexual love poem, a witty rejection of the normal tactic of the lovesick poet, who worked his way with growing excitement through a list of similes about various bits of his beloved’s anatomy. Hair like gold, eyes like jewels and lips like cherries. The kind of mush that reddens faces in classrooms full of adolescent hormones and undeclared passion. John Donne produced a particularly detailed, shameless version in his Elegy 19, which is guaranteed to raise a teen- age blush, even in today’s classrooms. Besides the fumbling, adolescent enthusiasm of Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below, Donne’s lover risks embarrassing every teenage boy battling with the temptations of pornography when he asks the girl, As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew/Thy self: cast all, yea, this white lynen hence.
Shakespeare shifts his ground elsewhere and builds on the initial comparison of his beloved to summer, all with the goal of winning her over at the end with a knockout compliment. The sonnet is famous for its final, brilliant assertion; that by praising her and writing about her in this poem, he has in effect, immor- talised her.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
It’s an impressive chat-up line, as well as a superb illustration of poetry as economics. Try turning it into workaday prose and see how long it takes you. Who wouldn’t want to be remembered in this way? After all, this poem has been reprinted literally millions of times in many hundreds of poetry anthologies and collections, translated into languages as disparate as Afrikaans and Esperanto – never mind how many times it must have been downloaded in the last decade. It must have featured in countless weddings and rescued a doomed Valentine’s Day as often as a bunch of flowers grabbed at the local garage, or a chicken biryani and a bottle of rosé. Shakespeare would have been out of his doublet and his love her hose before he could have dipped his quill if she’d have known he was going to make her that famous. But here (as Will himself put it elsewhere) is the rub. We actually don’t know who he wrote this sonnet for, so how on earth can we admire her? A portrait would have been handy. Even more insulting for the poor, anonymous lass, as we’ve seen, modern critics don’t want to agree over whether it was written for a man or a woman. Now my guess is even the most liberal gentlewoman in Elizabeth’s court would have come over just a bit frosty at the thought that Will’s fourteen lines of literary brilliance couldn’t even capture her gender.
Which points towards something critical to any understand- ing of what poetry is or why it matters. Like all published literature, the moment the final dot of ink stains the page, even before the finished work arrives on the library or the bookshop shelf, the poet has lost it. It’s out of their control for ever. Irrespective of how much intense effort and care they invested in constructing it, how wholly in control they felt of its structure, design, content and meaning, it has a life of its own now, and they can never reclaim it. The touchpaper will be lit not once, but many, many times and all those ideas they packed into it, knowingly or unknowingly, are going to burst into someone’s life somewhere, whether they like it or not, each time producing a different display.
That’s a thrilling thought once you grasp all its implications.
It’s an amazing invitation to any reader. Like handing the tallest, most brightly coloured, fattest rocket imaginable to a child clutching a sparkler in the darkness on Bonfire Night.
It’s not just the question of the lover’s identity in Sonnet 18 that illustrates how true this is. Addressing that question is a pragmatic, factual, historical pathway to the poem. Right now there is probably a metrophobic project manager reading this at the same time as you on the train to work somewhere in the world thinking that, in spite of all that scholarly effort, there must be some way to identify her. But that is only one amongst limitless ways to respond to it. We can admire the skill of the rhyme. It’s no mean trick to rhyme date with temperate or shines with declines. But if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there’s the gentle, clever timing of the rhythm that builds to that final, dramatic couplet. That final compliment about timelessness reverberates more powerfully as a result. Or you can ponder the various clever images, those carefully chosen individual words and combinations of words that Shakespeare uses to praise her, as they appeal to you, or repel you: it is entirely your choice. The sparkler is in your hand. You can reflect on that curious choice of untrimm’d, a word that sounds coined and that appears to mean ‘undone’, but when you look into its etymological history, you discover it was specifically used around that time to describe a ship’s hull that hadn’t been cleaned of barnacles and seaweed. The avenues of thought open to you are endless and endlessly fascinating.
However, I’ll repeat, this book was never designed to meet the
needs of any formal literary student looking for forensic analysis, line by line, so although I want to alert you to the rich tapestry of detail in any poem, it’s the wider, bigger picture, those star- tling bursts of colour at the climax of every firework display I want to dwell on and encourage you to enjoy.
Most love poetry, at least that dripping off a male pen, has a pretty basic aim in mind, however much Petrarch, Dante or even Donne try to dress it up. So much love poetry is little more than a struggle to try and describe the sensation of noticing a beauti- ful woman. It comes with cleverness and invention, but in the end, it’s just about that moment of recognition. The poet might indulge in all kinds of mind games, deploy a whole armoury of strategies to convince the object of his affection that she is so much more than a beauty in his eyes, but so often they are fooling no one but themselves. One of the things that make Shakespeare’s sonnets different, more interesting and pleasing to read, is that he seems to know that. They deal with abstract, difficult ideas to do with time, loyalty and perception. Sonnet 18 even starts with a tacit acknowledgement of this limitation in other poets by immediately rejecting the rhetorical question it opens with. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? he asks, before instantly answering no, because she is more lovely and more tem- perate. The conventional strategy, that litany of complimentary similes, is immediately dumped in favour of something more thoughtful.
No one, except perhaps a professional trophy wife on the hunt
for a frail but loaded number five, wants to be regarded as noth- ing more than the physical form they inhabit. And however powerful physicality is as an attracting force, it quickly takes a back seat the moment we make eye contact and someone opens their mouth to speak. We do indeed seek far more in those we fall in love with. And Shakespeare’s sonnets are a delight because they start there.
They also lead us naturally into contemplating the whole business of developing a relationship through words. As written proof of someone’s declared affection, Shakespeare’s sonnets are like little experiments in persuasion, tiny windows into some- one else’s relationships. Read all 154 and you will struggle to find one that isn’t vigorously trying to convince its recipient about something or other. In spite of the critical confidence that lumps so many sonnets together around the fair youth, I also defy anyone to assert they sense the same single human being is on the receiving end of all this affectionate praise and love. Poetry in Shakespeare’s day was also about patronage and, as often as not, when you read any one of his sonnets, there is this nagging sus- picion that it’s more an exercise in flattery than a declaration of heartfelt emotion.
Apart from the pain of being coerced to write poetry in school, I suspect the only time any normal human being attempts to put something down on paper that isn’t a tax form or a shopping list is when the extremity of human emotion, often love but some- times grief, forces them to pick up a pen. However cathartic, the resulting verse is rarely edifying, but it points to an important aspect of poetry that teachers, especially, undersell. Poets have always had something of a reputation for intensity and excess. I doubt whether Sappho, Byron, Dylan Thomas or Sylvia Plath wrote many shopping lists, and I dread to think what their tax forms looked like. Of course it’s foolish to generalise, unless you make someone smile, and Ms Plath might well have been every taxman’s dream form-filler, but if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date; Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
About the author
Joe Nutt’s writing career really began when he published an essay on Anthony Powell as a postgraduate student at The University of Warwick, (after his tutor had graded it B) and then followed that up by winning first prize in the university’s short story competition. His academic books are used by some of the leading schools in the UK although he is saddened at the way so many other schools shy away from great literature. He has written a fortnightly column for TES since 2015 and articles for The Spectator, Spiked and Areo magazines. His new book, The Point of Poetry, will be published by Unbound in March 2019.