Learning Lessons


I learnt an important lesson this month. Well, in truth, I learnt several important lessons.

  • Never test if the iron is still hot by using your tongue on the plate.
  • Just because the words “fat” and “jolly” go together in common collocation, it doesn’t mean that tubby people always have a sense of humour.
  • There are some people who don’t like to hear the word “bisexual” before 9.30 in the morning. (A fellow student told me she couldn’t deal with hearing the word until she’d had a sausage inside her).
  • And (most importantly) a writer should always read.

The fourth lesson came about through an email exchange with a poet. I’d written some poems and contacted him to discuss one or two points on the whole business of poetry, poems and performance. In an innocent enquiry from the poet he asked, “Which poets or poetry do you read for pleasure?”

The question threw me. I was stumbling for a response, trying to get my thoughts into the mindset of whether or not I’d ever read any poetry for pleasure. I was trying to recall if I had ever been sat by the fireside, with a book of poems in my hand, quietly reading verse whilst sporting a big grin on my face. I don’t think I’ve ever done that but, if I have, I think I might have been wearing a smoking jacket.

Like most people, I was introduced to poetry through English language education. This is probably the best way to bleach all the fun and pleasure out of any subject. Reading poetry is inextricably linked with reading text books. Appreciating poetry is something you’re taught how to do. Understanding poetry usually means the poet didn’t do their job properly.

So it was no small wonder that the idea of reading poetry for pleasure was not something I could immediately grasp. I thought about how to respond, fearful I would look like the world’s biggest fool, because it seemed I was trying to write poetry without having read any. Fortunately, our exchange was via email, so I had the luxury of thinking time to formulate my response. As is only natural in these situations, I decided to lie.

My first thoughts went to Coleridge. I don’t know why. I’ve been forced to read Coleridge in the past and I think the man was an over-rated stoner. Anyone who has ever heard his story about “the man from Porlock” and how that interrupted his “dream-induced” creation of Kubla Khan, can’t help but notice that the story is similar to the frequent lament of dope-addled musicians who claim they were writing, “the most awesome tunes” when a bout of the munchies struck and soured their creativity.

But I couldn’t honestly say I’d ever read any Coleridge for pleasure. However, I had flicked through Wordsworth for fun – simply because I enjoyed his description of nature. And I remembered reading and re-reading his complete works just for the entertainment of the experience. I wasn’t sat in front of a fireside, wearing a smoking jacket. I’d just spent a lazy evening in bed one night whilst enjoying some Wordsworth. (It’s fortunate I wasn’t holding my Longfellow – or that could have looked rude). On a similar note, although a lot of Shakespeare’s plays can seem inaccessible and verbose – his poetry is surprisingly pleasing. His mastery of the sonnet and iambic pentameter are wholly entertaining and – again – I have spent several evening simply reading his work for the pleasure of the experience.

And then I remembered I’d been trying to encourage some friends to read Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry. Here in the UK Poe is chiefly known for his relationship with prose and the horror genre. Introduce people to The Raven or Annabel Lee or A Dream Within A Dream and they come close to orgasm from the sheer pleasure of the experience.

On top of that, whilst researching poets from whom I could be influenced (it’s not called plagiarism in this context – it’s intertextuality) I had been listening to YouTube recordings of performance poets, dub poets and beat poets.

So, after an hour’s careful thought, I realised I had no need to lie about reading poetry for pleasure – it was something I’d been doing for a long time.

But the experience of having to remember those incidents did remind me how important it is for writers to read. If I hope to be successful with my poetry it’s vital that I know what is happening with poetry today and how it’s best being produced. And, when I next receive an email from someone who wants to write an erotic story, but they’ve never read anything from the genre, I shall give them a two word lesson on how a writer should familiarise themselves with their target genre.

Writers read.

Ashley Lister
November 2008

“The Write Stuff” © 2008 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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