I can’t remember when I fell in love with poetry, though I remember the teachers who encouraged it. I remember bringing in a lever-arch file of my own “efforts”, aged 14, mostly aping Wilfred Owen – a war poet who had the distinct advantage of having served in a war, which I had not. I had been kettled while on an Iraq protest, though, which I maintain counts for something.
Living in Oxford in my late teens and early 20s, I became involved in the performance poetry scene, supporting the likes of Patience Agbabi and Lemn Sissay, and winning awards at a university I did not attend. Poetry is supposed to be read aloud, and yet I enjoy it most on the page. That way you can take it anywhere, along with your heart and your brain. In this world of cacophonous news, long reads on populism, and explainers on influencers (who I still don’t really understand or care about), a retreat into my favourite verse is a soul saver.
At one time, briefly living on the top floor of student halls and slowly unravelling (a literal mad woman in the attic), I had poetry scrawled on the walls. Of course I did. Possibly the most obnoxious example was Keats: “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain”. I really identified with Keats; it’s wild, now, to think that my confidence was at rock bottom, and yet I somehow still wept for a world that might not get to devour one of my opinion pieces on, say, emojis.
The other poem scrawled in marker was Brian Patten’s And Nothing Is Ever As Perfect As You Want It To Be. Patten is mostly known for his association with the Merseybeat scene, and his love poems are sublime (“You tried not to hurt and yet / Everything you touched became a wound”). I always much preferred Patten to Roger McGough, though there is no doubt that the latter’s lines “For centuries the bullet remained quietly confident / that the gun would be invented” go off with a bang.
The thing about poems is that they are Swiss army knives of words; they have multiple uses. They make one feel, but also understand. They inspire and upset, they provoke and reflect. If you treat them right, and nurse the relationship, watering them every now and then with your attention, they will never let you down. I will always lose myself in Larkin; be overwhelmed by O’Hara; and agitate for Akhmatova. Life is richer for it.