Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Guest Post ~ 'The meaning of poetry belongs to you' by Ellie Stewart

Just as my humiliating school experiences in P.E. have given me a fierce aversion to all sporting activity, so too it seems that our experience with over-enthusiastic English teachers has put many of us off poetry full-stop. We can probably all recall the frustration of poring over every phrase and syllable of a dull poem about a flower, searching for the hidden meanings the teacher convinced us were there until our eyeballs fell off their stalks.

‘It’s just a poem about a daffodil!’ we’d sob, ‘I can’t see how the yellowness represents the poet’s unrequited lust for their mother, or how the gentle breeze is a metaphor for the unstoppable tide of Marxism! Please can we just leave it as it is…’

I think there’s a perception that poetry still needs to be processed in this way: that somehow we’re not allowed simply to read and enjoy it on our own terms- that we have to understand it through relentless study and analysis if we’re to ‘properly’ enjoy it. Call me a philistine, but I don’t think you do need to pick apart each poem you read, study the historical context in which it was written, or even understand its true meaning. A poem’s meaning comes from what it means to you.

I don’t understand most of the poetry I read, but I love poetry. I turn to my collections and anthologies when I’m seeking inspiration: they open up my mind to new ways of experimenting with language and expressing my own perceptions of the world. Sylvia Plath’s poetry is written with clear but brutal honesty, and her words fall down the page in a cascade of magical images: ‘Naked and bald in furs/Orange lollies on silver sticks’ (from ‘The Munich Mannequins’). Whatever the original meaning she intended, we can pocket these images like the brilliant pebbles we find on the beach, taking them home with us and out of the context of the poem, if we choose.

Plath’s poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ has an opening stanza that is so quiet and striking, I think it stands alone as a poem. It inspired my own poem I wrote about my mother – just those first three lines.

‘The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.’

This sense of vivid, disconnected images (not necessarily intended by the poet) makes me think of how Thom Yorke wrote the lyrics to Radiohead’s song Kid A: he literally pulled cut-out writings out of a hat. ‘We got heads on sticks/You got ventriloquists.’

Every time I open up a poetry collection or anthology, I make new discoveries. I feel as if I am six years old again, sifting through the sparkling beads of my mother’s jewellery box. Untangling long necklaces, discovering odd earrings tucked away. I’d spread them out onto her bed and transform them into snakes and frogs, twirling flowers and dancing birds- I do the same with the poems I find.

The twisted religious imagery of Ted Hughes Crow collection reads to me like a Greek myths and fairy-tales: disturbing events told cold, written plain. There is, I know, so much to uncover in his words, but you can read these poems naively, as a child would, and your experience of their power and dark humour will not be lost.

One of my favourite poems of all time is ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, by T. S. Eliot. Eliot was big on the importance of making poetry difficult, and a preserve of the elite who could understand its necessary complexities and the tangled references to other literary works it makes. Prufrock begins with a verse from Dante’s Inferno, in Italian. It also contains references to Shakespeare, The Bible and John Donne. Some of these you will get, because they have become so infused with our culture and our collective memories, but some of them you won’t. And I don’t think that matters.

Prufrock’s meandering rhythms, and the images that fall over them, are coiled in my mind like a song. I have never read (or, perhaps, even seen) something that so perfectly captures the feeling of summer evenings in a city, as the sun sets. It reads like gathered memories, like a half-remembered dream; it’s about loneliness and longing. And, like every song or book, painting or poem you have ever read that means something true to you, that feels inextricably connected to your being, part of me says of this poem: ‘It’s about me.’

It ends:

‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’

Dennis Hopper’s character recites a line from this poem in Apocalypse Now, which is pretty cool.

And as a final note: take a look at this post that sniggers at people who have given their honest opinion of classic works of literature. I agreed with most of them, and you may too. If so, and you gave up on poetry long ago, I promise you that if you keep scanning that beach, you’ll find those brilliant stones.

Ellie Stewart grew up in Wimbledon and Tunbridge Wells and studied English and Philosophy at The University of Leeds. She has been published in various literary magazines online and won The Writer's Village Best Writing Award Winter 2012. Her stories have been published in anthologies by Fluster Magazine and Arachne Press. She currently lives in South East London and works for King's College. You can follow her on Twitter @elliemayonnaise

Jade's thoughts:

This is the first of what I hope to be a long list of guest posts on here. Thank you Ellie so much for writing this great piece ~ I'm hoping it will spark some discussion.  Readers who want to know more of her work can visit her blog. If anyone is inspired by reading this great post and would like to write something similar yourself, please email me at jadelizzie85@hotmail.com.

Also what a auspicious time to have my first guest post as this is my 100th post! :)

Happy Tuesday 


  1. Wonderful post, Ellie and Jade. I recently attempted to write a poem, and really enjoyed the process. I've never been a huge fan of poetry, mostly because I've felt "stupid" about it, that there are hidden meanings and metaphors I just don't get. This post is like an affirmation that poetry doesn't come with an agenda; it's simply meant to be enjoyed, not dissected.

    1. Thanks Helena :) It's a really insightful guest post isn't it? I think that feeling of being 'stupid' is a perfect example of how poetry has changed into something that is just for the 'intellectual few'. I would love to see a come back of poetry and to watch people take it and change it into what they want!

    2. HI Helena, I'm really glad you enjoyed my post and that you've enjoyed writing your own poetry! The world of poetry reminds me of the world of fine art in a way: lots of people who tell you they are creating intellectual important things but, if they've failed to communicated meaning, then surely they've failed in every sense? Art is about connection and allows us to make sense of the world- so poetry has, I think, failed if it's opaque and doesn't allow people to draw meaning from it.

  2. A poem can't be summarized or explained. If it could, there'd be no point in writing it. Poetry is something one feels, not something one "understands."

    1. Hi NP

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, I couldn't have put it better myself! :)