Reading and Writing Poetry – Masterclass review

I’ve always been interested in poetry.

As a kid, I used to write poems all the time. It was a particular interest for both myself and my cousin Nikki, who was 2 years older. In my eyes, that made her infinitely wiser than me and so I often tried to emulate her activities.

I remember her writing a poem about an apple tree. A multi-stanza, long-form poem that, of course, prompted me to write my own version on the same theme. I don’t remember any of the words of either poem, but I remember being immensely proud of my creation and wanting to write more.

This is an office-type roneo (mimeograph). The one Mrs Fraser had was much smaller and less fancy.

Then, in secondary school, I signed up for elocution lessons with Mrs Fraser – an older lady whose home smelled of fresh roneoed stencils and was filled to bursting with books. In case you don’t know what a reneo is – it was a precursor to a photocopier and you could very easily get high on the fumes of the duplicator fluid (methanol and isopropanol) it required. Fresh roneoed sencils were the best!

I attended for 4 years, not because I wanted to learn to speak better (though that was a very useful byproduct), but simply because it introduced me to a variety of poems and prose. 30 years later, I can still remember the majority of Matilda by Hillaire Belloc – a poem I performed in the local eisteddfod and perhaps for one of my elocution exams as well (I don’t quite remember 🤔).

I’ve never lost my interest in poetry but rarely did anything about it. It has only been in the last 6 years that I have sporadically written haiku – particularly when trying to work through something that has affected me emotionally.

Ever think of it?

That night. My flat in Chile.

Holding hands. Talking.

Haiku written when remembering an unrequited love

Haiku is a very constrained Japanese form of poetry that has several specific rules. It is often taught in schools in its bastardised form and is most commonly thought of as a poem that contains 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5 syllables.

The above haiku is of this form and does not adhere to the rules of traditional Japanese haiku (I’m sure I’ll write more about this later). I’ve written loads of these, and in the past year have gone for months at a time where I write a haiku per day – about something, anything that has happened that day. My plan is to continue this into 2022 and do a full year of it.

But I feel this is just dabbling at the edges. I want to be able to read and appreciate (and perhaps write) a wide range of poetry, but I’ve struggled to find a way in. I’ve come across very few poems that immediately grab me, and I kinda want to figure out why this is so.

So I thought I’d start doing some research into how to read and write poetry.

Billy Collins’ Poetry Masterclass

I had access to Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry – part of the Masterclass online learning series. This sounded like it might be a good introduction so I decided to give it a go.

Let me preface what follows by letting you know that I am a physical scientist by training. I have a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, am super-practical in my approach to everything, and believe that if I’m spending my time/money on a course or book to improve some aspect of my life, I want to walk away from it with something concrete that I can use.

If this also describes you – then you will be disappointed with this course.

It is interesting enough to watch, and there are some gems of wisdom in there.

The idea that poems have shape and occupy a page in a unique way. The linking of the whitespace in and around the poem to silence (the poem is the displacement of silence). Equating prose to white noise.

The idea that poems often have 2 subjects – the one you start out with and the one you find. That they often begin with a small, simple object/thing that leads the reader into the poem gently, and which transitions to a large and more complex emotion by the end.

And the argument for writing poetry drafts long-hand in a notebook, rather than on a computer. Make a mess and hold the pen lightly – as Billy says.

There are several poetry readings in the course – often shared with another poet and even some student poets. And while I could relate to some of the ensuing discussion, some of it ventured too far into the highbrow artsy realm – a place I find difficult to enter and follow. Finding the access keys to this kingdom is partially why I’m on this journey.

Summary

For those looking for a practical guide to reading and writing poetry – you will likely finish this course somewhat unsatisfied. But for those looking for a general overview and discussion of poetry – it would be perfect.

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