A Week in Books: Poetry is a craft and it starts with reading

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The Independent Culture

Yesterday, some people wrote poems for the first time.

Yesterday, some people wrote poems for the first time. In libraries and arts centres around the country, adults who haven't read a poem since being force-fed "Daffodils" or "Ode to Autumn" will have ransacked hidden corners of their brain to squeeze out a few words that don't form quite the usual pattern on the page. They will have done this as part of the frenetic round of activities that now characterises National Poetry Day and that has every local arts officer combing their address books - and their budgets - for poets who are "good with people". Poets, in fact, who go against the usual poetic grain by being chatty, communicative, brilliant at running workshops and generally little beams of sunshine on a cloudy October day.

To do something new at any age is a mixture of pain and pleasure. It's not that easy to push your brain along unfamiliar paths or to read out your paltry efforts to a group of people who suddenly all seem like Seamus Heaney to your Pam Ayres. But then there's the pleasure of play - of messing around with words and images and feeling the fizz of excitement as they begin to form shapes on the page. It's a bit like fingerpainting, but without the washing up. It's safe, it's cheap and it keeps the funders happy. With any luck, they can now tick the boxes about "access", "creativity" and even "lifelong learning".

Only a curmudgeon - or a Thatcherite - would argue against access in the arts. Clearly, creativity is worth nurturing at any age. The question is not whether this is a nice - or fun or therapeutic or even life-changing - thing to do. The question, of course, is about those scraps of paper at the end of the session. What exactly are they? And what happens to them now?

Children bring their paintings home for their mums to stick on the fridge. Adults who have written their first ever poem - or perhaps their second or third - pop them in an envelope and send them off to Faber & Faber. Sometimes they ring the changes and send them off to The Independent, too. "I'm a great fan of Robert Fisk," the covering note usually begins, "and I've written this poem against the war. I look forward to seeing it published in your pages."

Do people who sing in the shower expect to perform at Covent Garden? Do families who play charades at Christmas expect to hit the stage of the National Theatre? Or to display their holiday snaps at the Photographers' Gallery? Nutters aside, they don't. But perfectly sane people seriously expect their doggerel to be published in a national newspaper or by the publishing house that fostered TS Eliot and Philip Larkin. They enter poetry competitions in the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time they will shoot to fame and what passes in the poetry world for fortune. It is indeed like the lottery and the odds are probably about the same.

Perhaps it's because of the mystique surrounding poetry that people think they can knock off a few words and watch them transform, like magic, into something they call a poem. Sadly, it's not like that. Poetry is a craft and it starts with reading. "I think," said the poet Michael Longley, "that technique is important. If most people who called themselves poets," he added, "were tightrope-walkers, they'd be dead."

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