Reading poetry is something that I have to admit I don’t do very often. I think it is because whenever I try and read poems I inevitably feel like I am a philistine, stupid or that I am back in the classroom at St John’s and getting more and more upset that I don’t understand what some of these bloody things mean. I think poetry is very like art (and yes I know it is art but I mean art you hang on the wall art, or sculpt in some cases) because it is so subjective, some people (like myself) might like Picasso others may think he is an abstract mess. I tend to like poems that rhyme and which in some way I can apply to the real world in all its grubbiness or glory. As it is National Poetry Day though, and after a short natter with Kate about poems, I decided I would pick up a poetry collection (while I am at home with a voice like Mariella) and spend the day with it and report back with my thoughts. I plumped for Maureen Duffy’s latest collection, Environmental Studies.
You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who still has nightmares about English lessons choose a collection with a title that looked like it was designed for a classroom? This was my thoughts actually after I had grabbed it from the shelf. Yet Environmental Studies is not at all laborious or dull as it might be in a school context. It is a vibrant collection of poems that cover nature, culture, various periods in history and indeed the authors own personal history.
I have mentioned that I like poetry that I can relate to, and while none of them rhyme, I found myself incredibly drawn into this collection. My favourite poems were the ones about nature, we have poems dedicated not to all the fancy animals you might imagine but to woodlice, slugs, snails, pigeons and even the beautiful yet pesky parakeets that have made themselves so at home in London. I loved these particularly because they chimed in with my own thoughts, particularly Woodlouse because I have always been oddly fascinated by them, Sluggish as I have always questioned the point of slugs, Parakeets as when I lived in London they fascinated me, though the bloody squawking they would make was horrendous. Here Duffy and I connected with our similar opinions of these creatures. Oh I almost forgot Pigeon Dancing is just wonderful, we have all seen a male pigeon trying its luck at any possible mate haven’t we?
Duffy and I also connected over the importance of keeping the small things in life and the feelings they can evoke. There are a couple of these which celebrate the smallest most random of things which are also the things which make us human. Who knew I could be so moved by a poem about an address book, thermometers or tools and yet I was.
They come at me every year at this time
off the pages of my address book
my largely secular saints, the ones I no longer
can send carefully handpicked cards to
faces and voices I haven’t the heart
or something, even to cross out. The book’s
falling to pieces, held together now
with a rubber band, and by that same token
love token, when I should by another
enter only the current, living, my hand
draws back, like a Christian commanded
to put a pinch of incense on the emperor’s altar
an image of secular Shaw, I know.
I did say unsanctified saints. But in
the old world of falling night and frost
this was the time to wake the dying sun
the dead earth. So I invoke my lost ones
off these pages, tattered, battered by years
and tears, but with their living names still.
In Environmental Studies Duffy also brings up the subject of culture and art. Now here I was slightly worried, art being so subjective and all, yet Duffy does something very clever. She looks at the story behind the art, so for example in Portrait and Figurine she looks at the people behind the picture be they the artist or the subject and I thought that was rather wonderful. It also made me feel a bit clever and reminded me that art is initially in the eye of the artist, yet it is in only in our eyes that we can try and work it out, be it the story behind it or whether we like it.
I have to admit that with the more religious and historical based poems I did struggle a little bit more. However they weren’t all lost on me at all, I just didn’t always know what historical person, myth or legend (for there are many of those and I loved the poem from a medieval dragon’s perspective a lot) I was meant to be connecting with. Up rose that moment of ‘oh Simon you aren’t knowledgeable enough’ but I just enjoyed the pace and the words and carried on. There were some marvellous moments though when having a classicist for a mother paid off and really added to the experience, I will be taking my copy to her tomorrow. These historical pieces are not dry though, they are full of adventure, drama and comedy – the classic poets would approve I am sure.
Uses of a Classical Education
Narcissus is up the gym three nights a week.
Out on a binge Ariadne fell for the prettiest
boy in the rout who dumped her later.
Ganymede’s been swept of his feet again
and by the villa pool Daphne shrivels
under the sun. Callisto pregnant on IVF
goes around like a bear with a sore head.
But let me still be your all encompassing cloud
your shower of gold or just carry you away in my arms.
I loved the authors poems of personal history though. Those childhood dinners, the pastimes their parents had and of how things must be cherished and scrimped and saved, the atmosphere being very evocative. (See I can’t tell you about all the poetry tricks but I can tell you how they made me feel which I think counts as much if not more, he says not being defensive at all!) I also really loved poems where Duffy looks at the modern world, which she seems to both celebrate and be baffled by, along with the nostalgia for the old, like in the sublime Technolithic.
I really enjoyed reading Environmental Studies. I had forgotten the power of a poem. They can really evoke atmospheres, times and places. They can also tell a really wonderful story very quickly and encapsulate so much which you sometimes forget, especially if you read as much fiction as I do. It is a collection that covers a variety of styles, moods and experiments with the form whilst reminding you of all the good things about poetry too.
I am rather thrilled that Kate, in a way accidentally, set me off on a self imposed challenge to read some poetry and even more thrilled that I chose Maureen Duffy’s to read as it ticked all the boxes for me both in the poems and in reminding me of the joy in them. They aren’t just for studying, and if you don’t get all of them does it really matter? Have you read any of Maureen Duffy’s poetry, apart from the ones I have shared with you? It has really reminded me how much I need to read her fiction too as I heard her read a few times at the Polari Literary Salon when I lived in London and loved the extracts she gave. Have you read any of those? Which other poetry collections would you recommend?