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!

 

The Otherworldliness of Elves

Image courtesy of Mysticsartdesign on Pixabay.

ON HIS BLOG “Every Day Should Be Tuesday”, H.P. has posted a piece titled “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Howard, Moore, and Dunsany“.

In it he notes that “One of the things that struck me rereading The Lord of the Rings this summer . . .  is the otherworldly nature of the elves. The movies of course miss this entirely, as do his imitators. [In The Lord of the Rings] Legolas isn’t a superhuman archer; he doesn’t really come off as human at all. The otherworldliness of the elves in The King of Elfland’s Daughter is much more marked. . .

“. . . It is the otherworldliness, evoking a sense of wonder, that most stands out, as distinctive in Dunsany’s tale, present but more subtle in Tolkien’s, and entirely absent from his imitators.”

I must agree with H.P. and extend the idea to cover not only elves, but also the Faêran, wights and vampires. In modern literature, movies and games, elves and vampires are usually depicted simply as good-looking humans with supernatural abilities. They think like human beings. Their emotions are typically human.

Yet Dunsany, Tolkien and students of the great folklore collector Katharine Briggs know that this is as far from the original conception of these creatures as it is possible to be. These magical, non-human beings have a completely different, unhuman mindset.

H.P. writes, “an elf can never understand a human,”  and I would add that human beings can barely fathom the minds of elves, the Faêran, wights, or indeed vampires as they were originally conceived. Even the look of these beings has changed. Vampires, for example, were first described as  being bloated, with flushed or dark faces – very different from the slender, pallid vampires that became fashionable in the early 19th century.

Take, for example, the Drowner in my novel The Ill-Made Mute. This unseelie wight takes the form of Sianadh’s sister and calls to him with her voice, to lure the man to his death beneath the river. When her attempt is sabotaged and she fails:

‘The drowner, cheated of her prey, did not scream in rage. No recognizable expression crossed her delicate features. She reacted in no human fashion.
“Kavanagh, Kavanagh,” she called, or chanted,
“If not for she,
“I’d have drunk your heart’s blood,
“And feasted on thee.”
Having spoken, she subsided gracefully, leaving a faint turbulence.’

Of course, since elves, the Faêran, wights and vampires are fictitious, it could be argued that there is no right or wrong way to depict them, but to discard their otherworldliness is to strip away their most magnetic and intriguing qualities.

It is too easy to transform them into superhumans. Too easy, and far too boring!

 

The true origin of the term “Faêran”

Image courtesy of Dieterich01 on Pixabay.

THE FOLLOWING is probably far too much geeky/nerdy information for most people, but it’s important to me because I invested a lot of time and thought coming up with the term “Faêran” for my books. And it should never be confused with an Old English word that has nothing to do with it!

Question for CDT: What is the correct usage of the term ‘Faêran’? And did you invent it?
Reply: Yes, I did invent it. It first appeared in print in 2001, when The Ill-Made Mute was published. Since then, the word ‘Faêran’ has sometimes been mistakenly confused with the Old English ‘faran’ – ‘to frighten’. The confusion arose due to the normal dictionary practice of using phonetic spelling. The phonetic symbol ‘æ’ represents the short ‘a’ vowel sound, as in ‘sad’, so the word ‘faran’ is shown in dictionaries as ‘færan’, to ensure that it is pronounced properly. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, this letter is called ‘ash’.

Wikipedia: ‘Æ (minuscule: æ) is a grapheme formed from the letters a and e. Originally a ligature representing a Latin diphthong, it has been promoted to the full status of a letter in the alphabets of many languages. As a letter of the Old English alphabet, it was called æsc ‘ash tree’ after the Anglo-Saxon futhorc rune which it transliterated; its traditional name in English is still ash.’

As for my thoughts on the correct usage of the term – it can be used as a collective noun or an adjective. For example, no one is ‘a Faêran’. They must be ‘one of the Faêran’. To get it wrong would be like saying someone is ‘an English’. An artefact can be of Faêran make, but no one speaks ‘Faêran’ – they speak ‘the Faêran tongue’ or ‘the Faêran language’. Ideally the written word should include ê (e-circumflex) – i.e. ‘Faêran’.
If you managed to read through to the end of this post, you are a word-nerd after my own heart.