On page 29, Andrew Neilson writes, “I vividly remember an essay [by Sean O’Brien] on Auden…which was crucial in drawing me to poetry myself”. Reflecting on what drew me to poetry and my own discovery of its transformative power, I was curious to find out about readers’ formative poetic experiences and how they shaped their later approach to poetry. So, to launch our new letters page, we’d love to hear from readers about what it was that first drew them to poetry. What did it for you?
So, what did it for me, aged ten? A severe stammer, speech therapy and an immensely kind and wise housemistress called Miss Williamson who, on occasional Sundays in her year before retirement, would take me away from a school boarding house where my every attempt to articulate sounds began in terror and ended in humiliation. She would drive me to her house in Kinross, feed me tea and biscuits and make me read aloud Macavity: The Mystery Cat. She listened. If I got through Macavity, I could have a stab at Skimbleshanks. Rhyme, rhythm, metre and pace were not just devices or fancy terms, they showed me the possibility — even the necessity – of an outer, heard, voice being true to the inner voice. Imagining the shape of the line allowed me to get to the end of it, not get stuck a third of the way along.
At the same time, a speech therapist introduced me to fricatives, plosives, labio-dentals, labio-palatals and aspiration. She gave me the tools to analyse why Macavity was so hard to say and the freedom to explore sounds, sensuous space, tension and relaxation and the shape and weight of words. And as for resonance…well, I knew it in my bones.
What of the words themselves? I amassed lots of them. Why? A stammerer will do anything to avoid an awkward word (and poems can’t avoid, surely …), even learn endless synonyms to be pulled out in moments of crisis. They had their limits — it doesn’t do a ten year old’s street cred much good in Alloa bus station to ask the time of the next omnibus to Dollar. So the next lesson learned was about words and register. And so I could go on.
I am not making a plea for poetry that ignores visual imagery, ideas, and engagement with poetic or political debate, or is self-indulgently in love with its own lush, empty gorgeousness. But I do believe it is difficult for a poem to be fully realised if the poet has not explored the emotional correspondences of a sound or the potential of their own interior resonating space.
Letters, please to us by post or e-mail via the Editorial Secretary.
Helen Nicholson, Editor, magma 20