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Playing with poetry

6th October 2011 - Rachael Lloyd


When I tell people that I read, write and study poetry the reaction I am used to is, "Oh, that's amazing" followed swiftly by "I just don't 'get' poetry" or "I haven't read any since I was a kid". Most people look back to the poetry of their childhood and recall fun rhymes, nonsense verse and wordplay, but by the time they get to secondary school poetry suddenly means raking over First World War poems and weighty epics.


There's a reason why we feel poetry, even if we don't usually read it, is considered vital enough to mark important events in both our personal lives with rites such as christenings, weddings, funerals, and also punchy enough to tackle newsworthy events. However this tends to further the notion that poetry has to be serious, awe-inspiring or politically relevant.


I want to take you back to the idea that poetry can be fun, lighthearted, playful. Today is National Poetry Day and that's this year's theme: Games. Some come and be a child with me again.


The Rattle BagAt our St Pancras shop people are often in a hurry and want something to dip into, a tombola of poetry if you will, which is why anthologies are very popular and a good place to start reading poetry. The anthologies The Rattle Bag and The School Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, are fantastic all-rounders and will transport you immediately to school-era poetry. I also love the selections in Short and Sweet, edited by Simon Armitage, and By Heart, again edited by Ted Hughes, as they contain particularly memorable, image-laden goodies.


Also no recommendation of anthologies would be complete without mentioning the Staying Alive series published by Bloodaxe, which has something for everyone. Bloodaxe also do fantastic showcases of contemporary poets: try out Voice Recognition and Identity Parade. Also, The Forward Book of Poetry, published annually on national Poetry Day, features the newest, best and brightest poets.


Once you know what you like you can try single author collections. So which poets are the funnest of the fun? You should look at John Hegley, Tim Turnbull, Luke Wright and Tim Key (at St Pancras we're in love with The Incomplete Tim Key), but there are many others, and lots of modern poetry is humorous or satirical. They are all well worth reading but particularly hearing and seeing. Poetry performance has never been so popular, and I urge to try these guys out, especially if for instance you enjoy stand up comedy. Of course St Pancras' icon, John Betjeman, had a wonderfully dry wit, and his work is very accessible.


The Ode Less TravelledIf you want to try your hand to a bit of writing, Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled is the way to go. I've made my way through its entirety - it's jam packed with fun exercises, silly examples and Fry's usual brand of humour. Be prepared to write formal poetry though: rhyme, metre and verse is what's here, though its broken down quite charmingly and never seems too difficult. Fry tries them out himself with unintimidating results. The lesson is: write for practice, write for laughs.


Actually, lots of seemingly chaotic fun verse is actually formally quite tight (limericks are surprisingly difficult to write!) but it's great fun trying, and the constraint of the form itself can often be a good starting point if you've no inspiration. There's lots to try: nonsense verse, haiku (not inherently funny but ideal for sites like Twitter), shape poems, or send a hidden message through an acrostic poem. For example (if you'll excuse the doggerel):


             Fusty and frowsty is it no more
             Old bookshop splits septenary.
             Years pile like books, eight and five score,
             London, Bristol - which cities wait?
             Enter a new world in every store,
             Sighing, as unread pages rustle.


There are also fantastic ways of getting inspiration and playing with words. I know some people are suspicious of Magnetic Poetry, but I love it, it's a great way to dabble in verse. I have been known to roll in slightly inebriated and go straight to my fridge to record my, er, uninhibited genius. Actually I once received a (rejection) letter from Magma Magazine with feedback saying that the four lines I'd written via magnetic poetry were better than the whole of the rest of the poem: "Trudge under must / dress beneath rain / blood for water / wax for wind". The rest was deemed, quite rightly, insufferably arch.


Other games you can play will be familiar from school: Exquisite Corpse is a poetic version of Consequences that can produce hilarious and odd poems. One of my most memorable poetry classes at City Lit, where I study under the poet Clare Pollard, was a lesson redolent of the Victorian parlour, playing surrealist games and finding tips and tricks for inspiration. We invented new superstitions, engaged in automatic writing, and considered ideas such as cutting up newspapers or keeping word jars containing favourite words, in order to randomize and thus, hopefully, inspire. Not so far away from magnetic poetry then. You can find lots more games at the Language Is A Virus website.


The point is - you don't have to write poetry to get published, or to impress anyone, or to mark important times. Write for giggles. Write to your loved ones. Write just for the joy of playing with words, and discover how addictive it is to put, as Coleridge put it, the right words in the right order.


I heard the founder of National Poetry, William Steighart, on the radio the other day telling us that all the Olympic venues this year will feature excerpts from poems, etched out in huge lettering. Fitting really, when you consider that the ancient Greeks competed in poetry and rhetoric in the original games, and hopefully a signal that the arts and sport can work and grow together to inspire people, marrying the cultural Olympiad with sporting prowess once more. Steighart furthermore encourages us to make cultural venues of our surroundings, to write poetry on our streets and building, in our gardens. On our fridges. Or engage in a spot of poetry bombing.


There are lots of fun events taking place today; you'll find a full list here. So get yourself down to the Southbank Centre for some free frolics, and while you're there pop into our lovely South Bank branch, which has a great selection of poetry books and journals. There's also the poetry section at flagship Charing Cross Road shop, which is the biggest in London.


And remember - play with your poetry!

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