My name is Dai George and I’m a poet. When I say it like that, it sounds like a terrible confession, like I’m admitting to something bad: my name is Dai George and I’m addicted to video games. Being a poet is a funny thing in today’s world. It sounds like something that should command respect, but actually very few people read poetry for pleasure nowadays. Often when I’m meeting someone for the first time and I tell them what I do, their reaction will be quite funny to watch: it often starts with them being interested (‘Oh cool! That’s amazing. I used to like reading poetry in school’) but soon after that they get confused.
The usual complaint is that modern poetry is difficult or boring and they can’t get into it. They’ve tried but it just ain’t happening. And then there’s the awkward question – is that your job or just a hobby? How do you really make a living? Sometimes I get the impression that I’d be better off admitting that I spend my time playing Call of Duty. At least people would understand why I might enjoy that.
The truthful answer to why I’m a poet is that I couldn’t be anything else. I couldn’t live without it. Honestly. Or, hmm – maybe that’s not quite true. I suppose there was a time when poetry might have passed me by, just as knitting has, or skiing, or learning how to bake. Maybe if I’d been introduced to those things at the right time, you might be talking to an Olympic skier now instead of a poet. But one way or another, I did encounter poetry at the right time – and once it got its claws into me, it wouldn’t let go.
Poetry scratched an itch that nothing else could reach, an itch I didn’t even know I had. It was language, and it was being used to communicate something, but I couldn’t quite tell what – it certainly wasn’t information, like a text message reminding you to pick up milk on your way home, and it wasn’t even like the language in a story or novel, which tells you what’s happening to a character in an imagined world. The best way I can describe it is this: it was like listening to a song, but through words on a page. You know: a song that makes you feel an emotion that you can’t quite define. Poetry is many things, but above all I think of it that way – as the language of emotion.
Let’s look at something I first read when I was 17 – a poem by Philip Larkin. You can follow this link to read the full poem, but here’s a snippet below:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
from ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin
At first it seems like a pretty standard observation about nature: it’s springtime and the trees are starting to grow green again after winter. That’s a lovely way of describing the return of a tree’s foliage – ‘coming into leaf’ – but fair enough; so far the description is pretty straightforward. What completely threw me off course when I first read it is the second line. It’s a simile, but not like any simile I’d met before. (You know, ‘the moon is like a coin’, ‘her eyes were like emeralds’.) This simile didn’t give me a clear image; it actually seemed to complicate the clear image of the first line and make it deeper somehow, but at first glance more confusing.
What does it mean when Larkin writes that the leaves are budding like ‘something almost being said’? First of all, it suggests that nature is trying to speak to us – that the processes of the world can be understood in a way similar to how we understand human relationships. That’s pretty mysterious and wonderful in itself: the trees are speaking to us…
… or actually, they’re not speaking to us; the something the trees would communicate is only ‘almost’ said. It’s as if they breathed in and opened their mouths but then thought better of it.
As you can probably tell, I loved this idea of ‘something almost being said’. Maybe I should mention at this point that I was a sensitive 17-year-old. I developed big crushes on girls and agonised about whether to tell them or not. This combination of having a big important message to communicate – something growing and changing and emerging within you – and almost saying it, but not quite being able to… well, it resonated with me. The trees seemed to be on my side: like me, they were sensitive, complex souls, looking to be understood.
Is it any clearer what I mean, now, when I say that I couldn’t live without poetry? After having this experience with Philip Larkin and ‘The Trees’, I was hooked; I needed my next fix of language that would get me thinking and feeling in the same way. I’d read poetry before, of course – I’d had to get my head around it for GCSE, as some of you might have done. But it didn’t click with me until A-level, when I had the great fortune of studying Larkin, a writer I quickly fell in love with. I think that experience of having a poem ‘click’ is really vital to the question of whether you’ll go on to be a poet yourself. It probably explains why some people are baffled when I tell them that I’m a poet – I bet those people have never felt that click.
For many people, sadly, poetry never goes beyond being something that they kind of understand, but mainly don’t (or so they think); something they struggled through for an exam because they had to. Then there are the people it does click for, and often those people find that they need poetry in order to make sense of the most important things in their lives – often, they find that they have to have a go at writing the stuff themselves, as I did, in order to make sense of all those things in their own way. There isn’t much middle ground. The more you read and listen to poetry, the more the language of poetry starts to lodge in your brain and to bubble up inside you. Truly, it’s one of the most joyful and rewarding things I know of – and it all starts with that first click.
But let’s suppose poetry hasn’t clicked for you yet; that you read it because you have to, and maybe even kind of enjoy it, yet you don’t really see it as a big deal – let’s suppose that for a moment. My one hope is that you go away from reading this and promise to keep an open mind. The click may come at any time in your life, and quite possibly when you least expect it. You could be on the bus one day when you’re 55, daydreaming about what you’re going to have for dinner that night, when suddenly you read one of those adverts that have a poem in them and you start to cry. That could happen at any point, and I just want you to promise to keep your eyes, ears and mind open if it does – to read that poem again, and ask what strange and beautiful things it’s doing inside your head and your heart. To think about how you could find that feeling again.
The next big click came at the start of my English degree at university, in the first lecture on a module called ‘Approaches to Poetry’. It was all about one poem, a piece called ‘Gathering Mushrooms’ by the contemporary Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon, and the lecturer showed us just how much you can get out of one poem if you’re prepared to read it closely. In that sense it was a great piece of teaching – he made everyone in that lecture theatre come alive to the subject, and you wondered if he could have been lecturing about trousers and still got the same response. I loved that lecture, but I have to admit: to me, the poem itself was the more exciting thing. Here’s an excerpt from the first stanza:
The rain comes flapping through the yard
like a tablecloth that she hand-embroidered.
My mother has left it on the line.
It is sodden with rain.
The mushroom shed is windowless, wide,
its high-stacked wooden trays
hosed down with formaldehyde.
from ‘Gathering Mushrooms’ by Paul Muldoon
Don’t worry if it seems difficult and weird at first. I still need someone clever to explain this to me. It’s so dense and it references so many other things using strange imagery and words you might be reading for the first time. Yet once again, as with ‘The Trees’, I could feel the meaning of this poem before I could understand it. All I needed was the rain, the mother and a yard. The rest could wash over me; I could try to piece it together when I read it a second, a third, a fourth and a fifth time. But that central image of the rainy backyard, where the speaker’s mother has left a hand-embroidered tablecloth – those few little details whisked me away to a different world. Reading them, I was in that gloomy backyard, feeling the drizzle on my collar.
I didn’t know that poetry could do this. Didn’t know it was allowed to do it. It was my first big prompt to write poetry myself. I saw that it could be a way of digging through my past and making sense of it, just as Muldoon was making sense of his. And I soon discovered something about that way of writing, which is this: that when you try to make sense of things, it often involves being a bit bossy and selfish. You have to elbow your way in. You have to set the truth down as you remember it, or as you imagine it to be. You have to reclaim the material that you’re working with, whether that’s family history, a romantic relationship or the natural world. I remember having this idea quite early on, and it’s stuck with me. It’s the reason why I called my first collection of poems The Claims Office.
But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that you won’t become a poet by doing what I did and studying it for all those years – not everyone does that, and not everyone should go through the same experience to end up with the confidence and skill to write. It would be a boring poetry scene that only had room for creative writing graduates, and fortunately it has room for all sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. If you need poetry in your life and need to write it, then nothing in the world can stop you.
There’s just one thing that can’t be substituted if you’re going to become a poet – and that’s the courage to take poetry seriously. To take yourself seriously. To invest precious time in developing the craft. Only when you do that can you answer that tricky question, ‘So what do you do?’ and answer it proudly with, ‘I’m a poet.’