Poetry – the least popular genre?

Children and Poetry

When I was a child, the walls of our home were lined with shelves of books. Most of them were chosen by our mother. Our beloved father was too busy earning a living to support his family, to have time to visit the local library. (He made up for it by reading to us every evening at bedtime.)

Our household was not affluent. Books were a luxury that had to be borrowed or saved up for. As a special treat, at birthdays or Christmas time, our parents would buy us a book as a present.

We were fortunate that Mum had carefully kept the books she herself had loved as a child. We were allowed to read them whenever we liked. There was no TV in the house, so my sisters and I used to immerse ourselves in books whenever we weren’t playing out in the garden. Mum loved fantasy. Her childhood books included Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies series, the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and a book of children’s poems by Water de la Mare. It was called DownAdownDerry. I still remember being enthralled by the poems in this book, and the exquisite illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop. Fortunately for children of the 21st century, you can find the text and illustrations online at Project Gutenberg.

The Romantic Poets

When I reached my teens I discovered other poets, including Tennyson (The Lady of Shallott), Wordsworth, Shelley (Ozymandias), Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Keats (La Belle Dame sans Merci). Of these, Keats  was my favourite.  His The Eve of St Agnes and To Autumn remain my most beloved poems.

The classic children’s poets (including Christina Rossetti) and the Romantic Poets influenced my inner world, and my later writing. My focus is very narrow; there is almost no other poetry I enjoy. (That said, I do love Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

But I really do love the words of these poets. The images they evoke, their metre, their rhyme and rhythm, all combine to produce a wondrous reading experience. On the other hand, I actively avoid most other “poetry” (particularly blank verse or free verse), finding it boring, pretentious, unintelligible or all of the above.

The Least Popular Genre

When I was touring bookshops, giving talks and signing copies of The Bitterbynde, I used to ask the bookshop staff, “What are the most popular genres?”
“Self-help” they’d invariably reply, “followed by biographies and autobiographies”.
“What’s the least popular?”
“Poetry.”

And I can understand this! For me, pretty much all poetry that isn’t written by the poets I’ve mentioned, is a turn-off. I know people who actively loathe all poetry – perhaps they have never read the work of the Romantics . . .

My Verses

Poetry may be the least popular genre, but that doesn’t alter my passion for it. I include short verses in my books, usually at chapter openings. This can set the scene for the chapter. Writing verse is invigorating and inspiring, like a mental work-out. You have to choose your words very, very carefully when writing formally structured poetry with rhyming and metre. The structure forces you to think differently. In most cases it improves the quality of your writing.

The Fairies by William Allingham

Here’s a poem that my sisters and I used to sing together, as children. The opening sounds cute and fluffy, but when you read the subsequent verses you realise how dark and dangerous “real” fairies can be.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

 

Quote, unquote

Humbled?

WHEN I STUMBLED across some quotes from my work on the website AZ quotes, I felt surprised and deeply honoured.

I won’t say I felt “humbled”, because in the 21st century that word is often skewed to mean the exact opposite of its original definition. Correctly, when someone is “humbled” they are made to feel less important or less proud. Seeing my quotes online did not make me feel less important or less proud. Quite the reverse!

There’s a current fad for using “humbled” in the sense that a person feels they really don’t live up to a compliment. Of course, language is always in a state of flux, and “humbled” has just fluxed big-time. But I don’t have to go along with it! Using a term to mean its opposite is anathema to my pedantic word-nerd instincts.

Pedantic word-nerd instincts

I have no problem with typos. I make plenty of them myself. Typos are generally made by busy people getting things done.

Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, on the other hand, I find annoying, particularly when they’re made by professional scribes such as journalists and authors. So many “trained” journalists are dangling their participles these days that it threatens to derail my sanity and that of my fellow pedants entirely. This keen awareness of the rules of language is part of my DNA. According to some, this means I’m probably an introvert. Who’d have guessed?
I’m not the only one afflicted by this issue – check out Weird Al’s song “Word Crimes” on YouTube. Love ya, Al.

Furthermore, the idea that one should always say “[insert name here] and I”, every single time, no matter what grammatical case one is employing, is a fallacy.

You don’t have to know what the cases are called, just use common sense.

“My friend and I went to the beach”. Correct! “The postman handed the parcels to my friend and me.” Correct! Simply imagine the sentence without the words “my friend and”. Then, if your English is good, you’ll instinctively know which form to use.

“I went to the beach”. “The postman handed the parcels to me.”

Quite the Irritant

Sweeping the English-speaking world, there seems to be another sudden fad for using the definite article (“the”) before the word “quite”, for example, “It’s quite the steep hill, isn’t it,” and “It’s quite the hot day today.” Noooo!

The Cambridge English Dictionary, bless its paper heart, explains that “Quite is a degree adverb. It has two meanings depending on the word that follows it: ‘a little, moderately but not very’ and ‘very, totally or completely’:

A little or a lot but not completely: “It was quite a difficult job.”
To a large degree: “School is quite different from what it once was.”
Completely: “I’ve not quite finished yet.”
Really or truly: “It was quite a remarkable speech.”
Here are two examples in which using “quite + the” is correct:
“He’s not inefficient; quite the contrary.”

Pairing “quite” with “the” was especially popular during the 1920s. In the perfectly grammatically correct and utterly delightful novels of PG Wodehouse, for example, a character could be described as “quite the cad”, (meaning a a man who behaves dishonourably). A trend could be described as “Quite the thing,” meaning “socially acceptable”. In this sense, something or someone  is being compared to a stereotype; the stereotypical cad, or the stereotypical trend.
The steep hill and the hot day mentioned above are not stereotypical in that sense.

Why it matters

As David Shariatmadari writes in The Guardian, “I feel something akin to having a stone in my shoe when I see a mistake. It acts as an irritant.”
Me too. Does this mean that I am an introvert? That I have OCD? I don’t know. The way I see it, language is an exquisite, precise tool for conveying meaning, and when a precision tool is blunted, the result is usually pretty poor. Meaning can be confused or lost. And it need not be!

I don’t correct anyone’s use of language unless they ask me to, because, well, I like to show some respect. Also, I don’t judge people (except journalists and editors) on their use of language. Journalists and editors are trained in language, as the tool of their trade!
By the same token, I am happy to be corrected if I err. Like anyone else, I can make mistakes.

We “Grammardian Angels” have our role to play, as Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, at the University of Queensland points out in her article In Defence of Grammar Pedantry. Petelin includes a light-hearted quote from BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman;

“People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.”

I’ll conclude as I began, with a reference to some quotes from my books that are popular on the Internet.

If you are the lantern, I am the flame;
If you are the lake, then I am the rain;
If you are the desert, I am the sea;
If you are the blossom, I am the bee;
If you are the fruit, then I am the core;
If you are the rock, then I am the ore;
If you are the ballad, I am the word;
If you are the sheath, then I am the sword.

 

~ Cecilia Dart-Thornton: Most popular quote on A-Z Quotes.