Today is World Poetry Day and I’ve been reflecting on poetry in my life in varying shapes and forms.
Apparently Lord Byron is in my family tree somewhere – my dad told me about it ages ago, but I don’t remember quite how he fits in. I like to think that gives me some special kind of writerly super-power, but in all honesty, even though I love reading poetry, my attempts at writing it (no matter how much I enjoy the act) are rudimentary at best:
They swirl around
They dance and hide
Who they are
I cannot tell
Are they demons
Of my past
Or devils from some fiery hell?
© Shel Sweeney
But I must be doing something right – I have had my first poetry submission accepted for publication (coming up in the next few months).
I’m not even a big Byron fan – I’ve tried, honestly, but his work just doesn’t resonate with me. I much prefer Andrew Marvel’s To His Coy Mistress – gets me every time. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan was the only poem I learned by heart and I could read and study and analyse Slyvia Plath’s The Arrival of the Bee Box time and time again. Then there is that one poem that will live with me always, carried on childhood memories of my dad’s recitals, complete with funny voices and actions: E. V. Rieu’s Sir Smasham Uppe – if you’ve never read it, it is definitely worth a look!
Not poetry as such (but definitely poetic) are song lyrics. I grew up to a soundtrack of Buffy Saint Marie, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Patti Smith, The Pogues and Woody Guthrie. I got into writing songs because I loved to sing. Inspired by Radiohead, The Clash, Indigo Girls, PJ Harvey, I learnt to play guitar. Like Radiohead told me, “Anyone can play guitar / And they won’t be a nothing anymore” (Anyone Can Play Guitar – Pablo Honey). I didn’t have the greatest voice but that never stopped me singing loudly and expressively.
All her life she danced on rainbows and laughter
She was the stars in my sky
Then she took the darkness, ran it through her red veins
Night had come and she could fly
One has pictures to haunt her and those voices taunt her
‘Til she tries to take her life
Another’s hands are empty outstretched and shaking
Looking where her child should be
One she wakes from her sleep and bed is empty
And her heart is heavy with grief
Another loved her family but they turned against her
Now she holds her pain dearly
As my own life falls apart getting lost in darkness
Scars are covering my sight
But if our memory is strong and our heart are nimble
We can build again our life
And the world came to crush her/them
But she/they would not admit defeat
And she’s/they’re looking at the sky
When will time come for me
© Shel Sweeney
Then of course there is the beauty of a poetically written phrase, the kind that you sometimes find in prose. The works of Jeanette Winterson are sprinkled with such gems.
“Singing is my pleasure, but not in church, for the parson said the gargoyles must remain on the outside, not seek room in the choir stalls. So I sing inside the mountain of my flesh, and my voice is as slender as a reed and my voice has no lard in it. When I sing the dogs sit quiet and people who pass in the night stop their jabbering and discontent and think of other times, when they were happy.” Winterson J. Sexing the Cherry, Vintage, London, 2001.
Though I have been writing stories, songs and poems since I was eight years old, it has been Jeantette Winterson and Radiohead who have most inspired me as an adult – I think if I could be half as good as them, I’ll be well on my way!
Photo credit: Lord Byron