This book response is written in the form of a short story. For a discussion of why I am trailing this approach to writing about books see the Reviewed a Short Stories page, here.
It started in The Gambia. Or came to a head, there, anyway. One or the other.
Walking along a dusty road overlooking the ocean and discussing poetry. From shanty town to boutique hotel like the evocations of privilege they were.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
A disappointed scoff from her companion. “I’m sick of hearing people say that,” the poet replied tersely. “People are scared of poetry and I don’t understand why.”
She could give no adequate response. So she closed her mouth and changed the subject. She didn’t read poetry. She read novels. How could she explain why one form of marks on a page made sense and another didn’t? How could she explain that she was scared of poetry; that it seemed to require a higher plane of comprehension than she possessed? They changed the subject and walked on. Tension wilting under the sun that scorched white their combating views.
Back in the UK she started a new job. Working in literature; still not ‘getting’ poetry. She attended readings, programmed poets, sometimes even introduced them, too. But never read any. Poetry was West Berlin in the 1950s, walled off from the rest of literature surrounding it. It made sense, somehow, to assign these labels, despite her otherwise conciliatory nature. It was one of those hypocrisies of character she didn’t think to question.
This is a story of the crumbling of that wall. But there was no storming or smashing; no momentous moment to witness. No gatekeeper received an order to lift the barrier and allow the inevitable to pass peacefully. This wall crumbled without resistance, gradually, over the course of months.
The catalyst for change was money. A grant for the development of a programme to improve the teaching of poetry in schools. Teachers were recruited. They amassed and sat around a table. A poet – a cross between a soldier and missionary and yet nothing like either - entered. He said that poetry was like running. Both were things we did in childhood, and lost interest in as we grew older. That school had a stultifying way of making both seem difficult; more like work than play. Focusing on what they said, rather than the feelings they engendered.
“Poetry,” the poet declared and she paraphrased, is a personal thing. “A work either speaks to you or it doesn’t. If it does, and you enjoy it, then it is good. If it does not, then move on to something else.” She nods some more and goes home. Permission. Something inside has shifted. Her head as yet unaware what it means. She has always been inordinately influenced by what people say.
Later, she hears a quote from Samuel Johnson and assimilates it. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”.
Yes, she thinks. That is what the poet meant.
Somewhere amidst these words she understands something she had not before. It was the word ‘poetry’ she struggled with, not the form. The word ‘poetry’ that had skulked around inside her, distorting her impressions of what it was. A red blanket cast over a genre, designating it other; making trust difficult.
How preposterous, she now thinks. How judgemental. She is embarrassed and confused at her readiness to categorise.
Almost at once, it is as though that wall rolls over onto its side, vast slabs of concrete chromatically shifting from grey to yellow brick.
Months later she leaves work and walks the cold streets with a collection of poetry in hand. It is winter. The sun sunk hours ago. The bar she settles in has a Victorian feel. Lamps ensconced on walls, red candles dripping lava down old wine bottles. Upstairs, there’s a sense that a séance may begin at any minute. The lights are dim, almost too dark to read. She unfurls in a corner.
And she reads. The words stand up to greet her, images like shadows moving around, whispering to her.
We talk, make love, we sleep in the same bed –
But no matter what we do, you can’t be me.
We only dream this place up in one head.
Gulping, she marks passage after passage. She reads as she would read prose: confidently, taking each word as it comes, unfussed by line breaks or meter. Experiencing them. Nothing more or less. They make her laugh, sometimes. Cry, sometimes. Other times she merely smiles at the Robin Hood accuracy of an observation.
If we never left this room
The wind would be a ghost to us.
When other people arrive for the book club, she resents their intrusion. They discuss, academically at times. She listens. They slice open the words; revealing shades inside that expand her understanding. She listens and enjoys the explanations, technical comprehension that causes her head to bob in agreement. But nothing touches her experience of the words. When the confronted her in the corner and made her feel things. She loved the book for how it enabled her to feel, the images it conjures for her. The rest is pleasant white noise.
That was a second beginning, of sorts. From there she reads other collections, enjoying some more than others. That evening and that collection stands out amidst them, a union of setting and text and emotion that shapes every positive reading experience she has had. Like the time she read The Great Gatsby on a train back from London. Or The Ground Beneath Her Feet in an apartment in Barcelona. Or Even the Dogs on a bus in Kentish Town. Or, now, Rain in a low ceilinged bar in Norwich. Times, like this, when she unfurled within and divisions came to seem painfully arbitrary.
The poet said something else too.
“Poetry works in tandem with its environment and that environment includes the reader. Just as the sensation of running is strongly linked to the world around the runner, so the experience of a poem is linked to the world around the reader. It is so important to remember that.”
Yes. Experience, she thinks. That is what reading is all about.
Rain was published by Faber and Faber in 2009. 80pp, ISBN: 9780571249572