Three Reasons to Love Poetry

For every hundred conversations I have about some great new Netflix series, I probably have one about poetry. And yet poetry is something I read, enjoy and think about. It’s sad that there seem to be few readers of poetry. And yet I believe it will always be written and read, because it is necessary.

So here are three reasons (among hundreds) why you can enjoy and embrace poetry.

One: We use poetry when we are trying to communicate the most complex and profound ideas.

There comes a point where literal, prosaic language just doesn’t do the job. If I’m giving someone directions from a Sainsburys local to the Park and Ride, I’ll use the most plain language I can. When I’m explaining to someone how much I love my children or discussing big ideas like life and the universe, I need poetry.

When the Challenger space craft exploded during take off in 1986, President Regan gave a speech in very difficult circumstances. It is said to be one of the ‘great speeches’, and it was written by Peggy Noonan. The whole country, many of them children, had just witnessed a tragedy live on television. President Regan ended his speech with poetry, quoting from the poem High Flight by John Magee. He said the deceased astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” And that touches the heart. It’s better than saying, “There was some faulty tubing, which caused an explosion and some people died, which is sad.” That last sentence is absolutely true. But it’s not fit for the occasion.

This is also why we read poetry at weddings and funerals. We are marking the fact that something big is happening, and nothing does that better than poetry. It’s no surprise that religious texts contain so much poetry. When you’re exploring the meaning of life, the character of God, what it is to be human, for all this you need poetry. You are reaching so far towards profound meaning that everyday language is inadequate.

Two: Poetry is timeless.

Sometimes we watch a film or television programme which has not aged well. Even if the story is good, the production values are so dated that it provokes laughter. Technology has moved on, special effects have improved. Now take a sonnet by Shakespeare or a poem by Christina Rossetti. Contemporary writers are catching up with them, not the other way around. Dante’s Divine Comedy has not been overtaken by someone else’s Divine Comedy.

In his play The History Boys, Alan Bennett wrote:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Whether it’s a poem about the nature of love by Luís de Camões, or a poem about isolation by Stevie Smith, we can suddenly see that someone has already felt what we are feeling, somebody has already walked on this path. Poetry is a shortcut to seeing the depths of human feeling, human folly and everything else on the spectrum of human experience.

Just as 2021 started with new lockdown restrictions, alarming numbers of hospitalizations, and a sense of fatigue as we faced a very dark winter, I stumbled across this poem by John Masefield:

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.

It was, to more or less use Alan Bennett’s sentiment, as if a hand had reached out to me across time.

Three: Brevity

Poetry is like a measure of whisky. It is deep meaning distilled into a few words.

When, in his poem The Rolling English Road, Chesterton says we must not allow ‘the folly of our youth to be the shame of age’ he has hit on something important that it would take me a whole paragraph to sum up: when you’re young, bad decisions and behaviour can be put down to the foolishness of youth, but if you’re still making those bad decisions and exhibiting that behaviour when you’re older, it turns from foolish to shameful. And even more, are we talking about a country in its youth and not just a person? In which case there’s further meaning to it.

Why use a paragraph when you can use a line of verse? The literal explanation sounded clumsy, but Chesterton’s poetry lifted it to something eloquent.

To finish, I would encourage everyone – especially keen readers – to find poems and poets they love. I’m as happy as the next person to talk about what great new series I’ve been streaming recently. But secretly I’d rather be talking about poetry.

Christmas Books

For the past few years, I’ve taken great pleasure in choosing a Christmas-themed book to read on cold December evenings. In the depths of winter, on foggy evenings when the streets are glistening with frost, I curl up with a book to enjoy one of the great cold-weather comforts.

The white Christmas lights are blinking on and off in the window, the heating is on, and I open a bottle of port. I choose a bottle of Sandman port if I can – a small reminder of a hot summer’s day when, on one of my first trips to Portugal, I visited the Sandman cellars, and walked up and down the riverside at Vila Nova de Gaia with the woman who is now my wife.

I’ve always been enthusiastic about Christmas books, and I don’t care whether or not I’m falling for some marketing gimmick (I probably am). If a writer I like has written a book to be read around Christmas, I will seek it out. Whether it’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or a specially published edition of Laurie Lee’s Christmas memories. Crime writers, poets, authors from the canon of English language classics, obscure short stories by Anthony Trollope, classics of German Romanticism, I’d happily read them all.

Yes, the front cover will probably feature snow, and perhaps splashes of red and green to indicate the season. And yes, the ending might be a bit sugary. What’s more sugary than a mean Scrooge becoming a good man, or of Inspector Morse giving an anonymous Christmas present to show he’s not really all that grumpy? The Christmas Hirelings is a Victorian classic recently made available in audiobook form. I think I guessed the ending after the first chapter, but still enjoyed seeing it play out to its sweet-as-a-gingerbread-house end. Even the gritty stories have a bit of sweetness: the Simenon story called ‘The Little Restaurant Near Places des Ternes’ (from A Maigret Christmas) where a down-and-out prostitute saves another girl from her fate in the spirit of goodwill on Christmas Eve in Paris.

A few years ago, a forgotten crime novel called Mystery in White was a surprise bestseller. A train gets stuck in snow on Christmas Eve, and the passengers find shelter in an abandoned house. Is one of them a murderer? It’s got a splash of Murder on the Orient Express about it. I happened to be in Portugal in 2017, so bought it in Portuguese. It seems bizarre that an obscure, out-of-print crime novel from 1937 can become a hit, and something so English as the classic detective story can travel so successfully.

I can revisit the magic of a child’s Christmas by reading children’s books to my daughters: Mog’s Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Shirley Hughes has just published Dogger’s Christmas – a sequel to the much-loved Dogger which has been published over 40 years after the original. I will buy that for my children, whether they want to read it or not.

Then there is the tradition of the ghost story. The tradition seems to have come, at least in part, from M.R. James (and a little from Dickens?). A Cambridge don, James would tell a ghost story around the fire at Christmas. I actually don’t remember any being set at Christmas time, but the stories of M.R. James are classics, and perfect for dark winter evenings. They have the right atmosphere, and go especially well with that glass of port.

Then there’s the story of the nativity. For me, the gospel accounts don’t get tired, and also don’t allow for sentiment. The baby Jesus was a refugee, born in filth, his life threatened by the insecurities of a corrupt ruler. And the person who has to cope with this is a teenage mother who is well out of her depth, along with her husband who is quietly bewildered. It’s a wonderful story, and it’s worth reading the original, whether or not you regard yourself as religious. Its themes of light and darkness are timeless.

And so I enjoy it all – the Christmas books, the mysteries, the Sandman port wine, the gospel narratives, the sentimental, the unsentimental. Small comforts and big comforts; all of them great pleasures. Turn on your Christmas lights, pour a glass of something warming, light a fire if you have one and reach for a book with snow on its cover.

The Ghost Stories of Susan Hill

The Fortune Theatre in London’s West End is a small Edwardian building, a short walk from Covent Garden, and just around the corner from the monumental Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. Tucked away on Russell Street, one could be forgiven for not knowing of its existence. However, since 1989 it has been home to one of the longest running plays in London: The Woman in Black.

This effective and well-staged Victorian ghost story is based on the novel by Susan Hill. A young lawyer is sent from London to a remote house in rural marshland, where an elderly client has died. He must stay in the house to go through the late woman’s documents, and this is the scene of terrifying discoveries, and the key to the mysterious woman in black.

This is the best known of Hill’s ghost stories, but they all share the same quality – a mixture of loneliness, despair and creeping fear. The Mist in the Mirror, another Victorian story, tells of a man returning from travelling the world and now set on finding out his own family history, and also the history of his favourite traveller Conrad Vane. He is repeatedly warned that pursuing his interest in Vane will cause unimaginable trouble. He ignores these warnings, and pays the price.

Two more contemporary stories are The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand. All four tales feature a single, unattached male narrator, usually intelligent and well read, inquisitive and sympathetic. Each narrator is drawn into something beyond his control, something connected with some tragic and mysterious chapter in history. The intrigue pulls the reader in until we feel both anxiety and excitement when something is at last revealed: an old photograph contains a telling detail, a figure appears, who only the narrator can see. But like all good ghost stories, these books aren’t really about ghosts. Susan Hill has said that as a Christian she doesn’t believe in apparitions making visitations from beyond the grave. This is reflected in the way the stories are less about the ghosts themselves, but more about guilt, identity, and coming to terms with the past.

Hill writes with precision. Her prose evokes a sense of place, the smells, tastes, and physical landscapes of her settings – London, or Venice, or high French mountains. And yet the story is never put on hold for the sake of a description. Story and style go hand in hand, to great effect. The stories are shorter than an average novel, and a couple of them could even be read in one sitting.

Of all these stories I find The Woman in Black to be the most powerful. It takes the severity of the haunting one step further, and includes the most shocking conclusion of them all. But I won’t say any more than that. Light a fire one winter’s night, pull up a large armchair and read the books yourself. The ghost of the story will stay with you only as long as your fear will allow; Susan Hill’s prose will stay much longer than that.

Openings

A bad opening line can kill a reader’s interest. But done well, the opening sentence of a novel can do a few things – it can give us a flavour of the story, introduce an important place or person, intrigue or shock us. There’s no formula, but let me give some of the best examples of each of the devices I’ve mentioned: flavour, introduction, intrigue, and shock.

The flavour is what the novel’s world feels like to us. As a reader we’re going to spend a lot of time in its world, so the atmosphere is important. Read one of the Inspector Montalbano books, like August Heat, and feel the Sicilian sun on your face; read Rebecca and sense the gothic beauty and chill of Manderlay; read Perfume and get a sickening whiff of eighteenth-century France before sanitation. The opening line of Casino Royale evokes a world brilliantly: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ In sixteen words we have entered another world. The opening line gives us a flavour, the rest of the book provides a whole taste.

Introducing a place or a character sounds like an obvious thing to do at the beginning of a novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do well. Here’s Graham Greene’s opening for Brighton Rock: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ It’s brilliantly simple. We’re introduced to the character Hale, the city of Brighton, a murderous group, whoever ‘they’ are, and the situation itself. It gets to the point, with no words wasted. It grabs our attention and gives us a lot of information, but without lacking intrigue.

And for intrigue we can turn to the first page of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ If that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is. It fills your mind with questions. Why do the clocks strike thirteen? What kind of a world are we in? It’s surreal, disconcerting, and sets the tone for the nightmare that follows. I won’t say here why the clocks are striking thirteen. Needless to say, something sinister is happening.

And now for a shock. I once read a popular thriller which opens with someone dying from poisoning. It was a gruesome opening, but it was also very boring. Presumably the author thought he could shock the reader and grab their attention with sensationalism and blood. It didn’t work. Shock should have an element of surprise. Here’s the opening to A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Cloverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It’s a shocking and bizarre motive for a crime. It makes us ask ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ It’s such an unlikely opening to a novel, we want to know more. Also there’s the added shock that at the beginning of a crime novel, we’re told exactly who the murderer is.

These are just some of my personal favourites. The opening line should be carefully crafted with the aim of making us read on. When it’s successful, we cannot resist. If you’re a writer, choose your opening words carefully. They’re probably the most important words you’ll write.

The Unpainted Veil

One morning in 1956, almost a year after the publication of Moonraker, Ian Fleming received a letter from a stranger. Fleming had written three James Bond novels, but they weren’t yet as successful as he had hoped. The author of the letter was Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Glaswegian who wrote to point out how poor Bond’s choice of firearms was. Boothroyd had an expert knowledge of firearms, and Fleming didn’t. From then on Fleming took Boothroyd’s advice, and went as far as creating a character in the series called Major Boothroyd, a specialist in weapons.

Characters who appear in fiction as thinly disguised versions of real people may occur more often than we think. In the case of Fleming and Boothroyd the result was flattering. But there are far more dangerous, and less happy, examples which might serve as warnings.

Somerset Maugham brilliantly captures bohemian Paris in his novel The Magician. The magician of the title, the disturbing and sinister Oliver Haddo, is a physically and morally repulsive man. There is little to redeem him as he manipulates the innocent, invokes dark forces, and carries out terrible human experiments. The book was so shocking that initially Maugham’s agent couldn’t find a publisher. The character of Haddo was based on Aleister Crawley, the infamous occultist, who Maugham met and disliked. The resemblance was clear, complete with vanity, charisma, and amorality. The magician comes out of the book badly, but Crawley was pleased with the further noteriety that followed. In keeping with his bizarre behaviour he reviewed the book in Vanity Fair, signing the review as Oliver Haddo. It’s difficult to know whether this response was just affectation. It is reported that later in life Crawley resented Maugham.

Once a book is published, and especially after it has gained success, there is no going back. The characters are out there. If there is damage done, it is done. There’s the insulting representation of Hugh Walpole as Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale (Maugham again) or the character Adam Lang, an ex-prime minister guilty of war crimes, who resembles Tony Blair in more ways than Tony Blair would be comfortable with, in Robert Harris’ The Ghost. These authors have found ways of saying through fiction what they could never say in real life for fear of libel.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

For the writer it is an encouragement to know that inspiration for characters is all around. And for everyone else it is a warning to be extra careful around writers.

Sources: The Secret Life of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie – Charles Osbourne

Agatha Christie: A Life – Laura Thompson

Ian Fleming and James Bond – Ben McIntyre