On Finding Inspiration in the Unlikeliest Places: Poetry Again

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been trying to read poetry lately. And as the title of this post suggests, I’ve been finding inspiration for that endeavour in the unlikeliest of places. Not so long ago, I re-read Josephine Tey‘s To Love and Be Wise (1950). It’s rather good of its type – classic mystery fiction – but I didn’t expect to find Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard discussing poetry with his rural counterpart.

Josephine Tey, To Love and Be Wise“I was never one for reading poems in books – I mean collections, but magazines sometimes put verses in to fill up the space when a story doesn’t come to the bottom of the page. You know?

“I know.”

“I read a lot of these, and every now and then one of them rings a bell. I remember one of them to this day. It wasn’t poetry properly speaking, I mean it didn’t rhyme, but it got me where I lived. (…) I never found the words for it till I read that. I know exactly how that bloke felt.” To Love and Be Wise, Josephine Tey, Arrow Books, 2011, pp. 188-189

That idea of poetry getting you where you live, helping you find the words for some experience – Rodgers and the poem he quotes are talking about living inland when you grew up by the sea, feeling hedged in and suffocated by “small birds gossiping” – helped me on with understanding what I’m looking for when I read it.

Clever Polly and the Stupid WolfThen the other day I was reading to Fils aîné and suddenly found Polly and Wolf discussing poetry too. OK so, it’s meant humorously – Polly has been reciting “Monday’s child is fair of face” and the wolf prefers his own version which begins “Monday’s child is fairly tough” – but again it conveyed something important to me.

“And it isn’t what I call a poem either,” the wolf added.

“Why?” asked Polly. “It rhymes, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, rhymes,” said the wolf scornfully. “Yes, if that’s all you want. It jingles along if that satisfies you. No, I meant it doesn’t make you go all funny inside like real poetry does. It doesn’t bring tears to your eyes and make you feel you understand life for the first time, like proper poetry.” Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, Catherine Storr, Jane Nissen Books, 2007, p. 53.

After the “Learning to Love Poetry” event I went to, I picked up several books of poetry.One was Kei Miller‘s A Light Song of Light and another was District and Circle by Seamus Heaney. Neither of those really connected with me, sadly. Partly it was to do with voice. I wish I’d been able to attend Kei Miller’s reading as part of the Summer Reads series. I think it would have helped me to hear his voice reading the words. I felt  self-consciously white, British and female reading his Jamaican dialect and that it would be wrong to try and put on a voice in my head, as awkward as when fils cadet wants me to read a Rastamouse story!

I felt that I should have another try at the Seamus Heaney book, given the poet’s recent death. I liked some of his poems, could feel the rhythms more clearly, but they didn’t “get me where I lived” and certainly didn’t “make [me] go all funny inside”.

I’m not claiming either Inspector Rodgers or the Wolf as the ultimate arbiter of real poetry by any means, but their comments however naively or humorously meant have helped me get a bit more of an idea of what I’m looking for.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to On Finding Inspiration in the Unlikeliest Places: Poetry Again

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I think you’re on the right track: poetry isn’t about pretty words or rhymes, it’s about expressing ‘just that’ – what we feel but can’t quite put our finger on. Or, as Emily Dickinson says it in rather more extreme fasion: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’

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