I remember having rather mixed feelings the first time I saw one of my poems used as in a teaching pack. My first thought was, wow, I must be a proper poet now – my work is being used in schools – but this was quickly replaced by my not being sure I wanted my poetry to be studied at all. More so as I didn’t want anyone to be put off my poetry because they had the impression there was only one meaning to a poem and it must be what I, the poet, thought or even what the author of the teaching materials thought I thought.
Because I passionately believe poetry, like all art, is a vehicle for how it makes its audience feel. Once it’s out there it takes on a life of its own. So by that measure a poem can never just be or mean one thing to everybody.
My initial poetry studies in secondary English lessons generated a love-hate relationship. I often argued the case for more fluid opinions with my teachers. I even dared challenge the idea that the opinions of my elders were the only valid ones. Needless to say it was not always a popular strategy. Yet, even then, I didn’t feel writing a poem could be condensed into such simple, linear processes.
Perhaps I’m not alone in thinking this through. Famously, Ted Hughes once offered to help one of his children revise when he and his wife Silvia were on the curriculum. His child’s response was that they needed to know only what the examination board thought he thought, not what he actually thought.
Quite true of course, where exams are concerned. Yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of trying to grasp the narrow parameters of one reading and meaning of poems, we asked instead ‘What does this poem mean to you?’ I know it would make marking harder but it’s no less complex, in fact it’s more so. You can’t learn this kind of answer by rote or repetition. It requires lateral thought and all of life’s juxtapositions. There may be answers which are too limited, simple or complex, but there are no wrong ones.
Don’t misunderstand me, I believe in studying poetry as much as any poet. It’s important BUT not at the expense of all joy and passion. My study began as an adult and an already published poet trying to improve my craft. It was purposeful and self-led. It allowed me to find different ways of containing and exploring my ideas. Using a recognisable, regimented and accepted form also often had a dramatic effect on those ideas. Occasionally, even, something amazing would happen and I would know that a poem has found its home.
In fact very few of the poems I write end as they began. It’s that that makes writing so compelling and exciting. Mostly I write every day to limber up whether or not I have anything to write. But sometimes someone will say something or I’ll read something that becomes a catalyst. If you were to ask me about the process that lead to a particular poem you’d be rather surprised at how strange the connections in my brain are.
So I’m not suggesting poets never get political or emotional and want to be heard, or that understanding is not important. Just that is not all poetry is.
Poets write because it’s what we are and do. It’s our gift not just to ourselves but to the reader. It’s not science, it’s art and as such the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.
Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet and illustrator. Her debut collection, Where Zebras Go, Otter-Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, Apes to Zebras, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection, If I were Other than Myself is available from Troika Books.