You Think You Like Poetry?
‘You think you like poetry? You don’t like poetry…’ said Mrs Flowers.
‘You’ll never like it until you speak it – until you feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.’
Her student, Maya Angelou, ran out of the house. But Mrs Flowers didn’t give up – she followed Angelou to the store and said, pointing her finger, ‘You don’t like poetry’.
She continued harassing her student for months until finally, after five years of not saying a single word, Angelou spoke for the first time. And when she did, she spoke poetry. (You can listen to Angelou’s account of her experience here.)
Mrs Flower’s description of speaking poetry made me think of the phrase ‘hau gum’ or ‘mouth-feel’ in Mandarin. It’s usually used in the context of food, but I think it applies just as much to poetry. It’s all very well reading poems silently on the page, but, as Angelou’s teacher pointed out, that doesn’t give you a sense of the texture and sound of the language, the ‘mouth-feel’.
That’s why, when I run workshops with young people, I try to get them to co-write – and co-perform – a poem. The performance is just as important as the writing as they both inform the other. It’s only when you perform a poem that you fully appreciate the tiny signposts the poet has left you in the form of commas, line breaks and white space – and can reflect on the signposts you might use in your own writing.
But often, when poetry is taught in the classroom, the teacher is the only one that performs, while the students sit and listen – at least according to Joy Alexander at the School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast.
Teachers can easily solve this by asking students to perform poems in pairs. When one of Alexander’s student teachers realised her pupils were ‘not at all proficient’ in reading or performing poetry, she found it improved drastically with just a little practice. She also found that the practice was helped by playing the audio of the poems to students before asking them to say the poems themselves. Not only did this help them perform better, but it also made them more engaged with the poem more generally. BOOM!
Even if you don’t speak it, listening can be game changing. Seamus Heaney once wrote that until you had found the work of T.S. Eliot, you had not ‘entered the kingdom of poetry’. But for a long time, he found Eliot obscure and bewildering – until he heard the actor Robert Speaight reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. By listening, Heaney discovered that what he ‘heard made sense’.
That’s why it’s so important to find ways to take poetry off the page. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Ariel Bissett, a prominent booktuber at this year’s annual Poetry Summit, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”
Taking poetry off the page and getting it into the mouths (and ears) of young people makes poetry more accessible. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Mrs Flowers said, ‘You’ll never like poetry until you speak it.’
Audio sample of Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura’s debut poetry collection for children:
Laura Mucha’s debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters is out now and comes with a free accompanying audiobook (a sample of which is provided above).
Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’.
Laura has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha