In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a fun new book about the point of reading and studying poetry
What is the point of poetry? Do we read it because we enjoy it? Some do; many are still waiting for that one poem to come along and transform their opinion; many more keep well away from it with the exception of funerals and buying greetings cards with emetic verses inscribed within. Many claim it has saved their life, or at least made them feel a little less low during dark times (Stephen Fry once picked Philip Larkin’s depressing poem ‘Aubade’ as one of the poems he turns to when feeling down, because simply seeing your own grim feelings expressed so deftly and movingly lifts the spirits by showing you what human beings can achieve with words). Many hapless students struggle through Shakespearean iambic pentameter or Wilfred Owen’s war poems without ever having that moment where it all ‘clicks’ for them.
So Joe Nutt, a former English teacher who has published books on John Donne and Shakespeare, turns to some of the greatest poems ever written in The Point of Poetry, a book published by the crowdfunding company Unbound. The Point of Poetry comprises 22 short essays which consider this very question: what is the point of poetry? In each chapter, he carefully introduces and explains a particular poem. Many of the poems Nutt includes are the usual suspects: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But there are also some less familiar choices here, such as Rita Dove’s ‘The Bistro Styx’, Hollie McNish’s ‘Famous for What?’, and E. Nesbit’s ‘The Things That Matter’. The poems are discussed with a light touch but Nutt has a forensic eye for detail too, and the essays in The Point of Poetry bear all the hallmarks of having been written by someone who has stood at the front of an English classroom for many years, teaching poems, patiently explaining them and enthusing about them to his students, drawing attention to local features and making connections with the ‘real’ world beyond the words on the page.
In his foreword, Nutt acknowledges the debt he himself owes to his own teachers, who opened his eyes – and his ears – to the distinctive music and magic of poetry. But not everyone had such gifted teachers, and not everyone found the right poem at the right time. It’s never too late, though, and Nutt announces that he wrote The Point of Poetry ‘to show all those left sitting bruised and battered on the roadside when poetry passed them by at school what they’ve been missing.’ Later in the foreword, he has a good simile: poems, he says, ‘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.’ I’d add that poems are stuffed full with emotions, densely packed and enigmatic and all the more devastating for it, and most of us who read and love poetry do so primarily, I’d venture, because it moves us in a way that most prose cannot. In that sense, it’s almost closer to music.
As the touchpaper analogy suggests, Nutt is aiming his book at those who are yet to be convinced of ‘the point of poetry’, and throws in many references to Twitter, Donald Trump, emojis, BBC’s Pointless and the like, as every trendy teacher likes to do (I declare myself guilty of this on occasion). When he treats more familiar territory, dyed-in-the-wool metrophiles (poetry lovers?) may struggle to learn much that they didn’t already know, and may even beg to disagree with him. I’m not convinced that Sonnet 18 can be read as a heterosexual love poem: whether Shakespeare chose the order or not, the poem seems a natural link with the early ‘Procreation sonnets’ (which directly precede it in most printings of the Sonnets), all of which are addressed to an aristocratic young man. And whilst he includes the text of many of the poems he discusses, sometimes – presumably for copyright reasons – a poem is omitted, which makes it harder to see how his insights into Ted Hughes’s ‘Tractor’, for instance, map onto the poem itself.
But minor carps aside, The Point of Poetry is a pretty solid ‘way in’ to poetry by somebody who clearly knows and loves it. I love his suggestive link between the fiery imagery and forceful repeated sounds in Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and the Industrial Revolution Blake so decried (‘dark satanic mills’ and all that), and his discussion of what makes a lyric poem lyrical, in his chapter on Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, is thoughtful and very well put in relation to Hardy’s poem. He doesn’t just confine himself to the classics either: Hollie McNish was born in 1983 and is a YouTube sensation, a poet for the millennial generation.
Throughout this informative and chatty book, Nutt draws attention to sound-patterning, language, punctuation, and the other tools of the poet’s trade, but he wears his technical learning lightly: a wise move given his target readership. Metrophobes could do worse than pick up a copy of The Point of Poetryas a way of curing them of their poetry aversion. It’s never too late to go on a quest for the right poem, and Nutt is an engaging teacher – the sort who, had many readers met him during their schooldays, doubtless would have opened their eyes to ‘the point of poetry’ even sooner.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.