A Bracelet Of Bright Hair
A Year Of Reading Poetry
This is the record of a year, 2010 to be precise, and the resolution I made at the start of that year. New Year Resolutions, with their in-built failure and potential for guilt don't work for me; from a lifetime of wrestling with it, I know my will power's not up to much, so it had to be a different kind of resolution. The Guardian website gave me the idea at the beginning of January. There is a weekly poem, and that week, it was Hardy's The Darkling Thrush. I decided that that was to be my task - a new poem, read with attention, as near to every day as I could.
As a teenager I read poetry both for pleasure and to show off. I remember slouching through school corridors with the yellow-covered Penguin Book Of Contemporary Verse stuffed into my blazer pocket, hoping it would annoy the nuns. I didn't understand everything I read, but often I just loved the way words lay on a page: The only emperor is the Emperor of ice-cream… What was all that about? Never mind; I liked its queer and special sounds. Later, I read English at University, and poetry turned into Duty. But there were also thrilling new worlds to explore - Anglo-Saxon, medieval poetry. There were poets I liked, and poets I didn't. Marvell was my favourite then, with his cool green gardens and glowing orange trees. I wasn't too keen on Wordsworth and I definitely didn't like Hardy.
I still went on - after a fashion - reading, and buying poetry. But then as the years went on, the necessity for reading poetry seemed to fade. Soon it started to feel like an indulgence. The poetry-shaped hole in the day shrank to a pinprick. It was either too early in the day, too afternoon-ish, and then, too late, to pick up a poetry book and just read. Other tasks called out with louder and more clamorous voices. The poetry books on the shelves grew just a little dusty, acquired the yellowish stiffness of unread, unnoticed books. I meant to get back into the habit, but somehow I didn't.
But when you feel there is an obligation upon you, that's different. After a few days, choosing my daily poem became essential, before the rest of the day could begin. Then I started jotting down a few notes. Then the writing turned into a sort of journal; I started looking for poems that suited my mood, or the things that were happening around me. The poems and the days were becoming bound up in each other in ways I hadn't imagined at the start of all this. And I realised that poetry - often just half-remembered scraps, or single lines, or just the recollection of a mood expressed in a poem, was far more deeply embedded in my consciousness than I'd ever realised. Poetry was simply part of my life, even if I'd sometimes forgotten it was there.
I made up some rules - there had to be rules, but I gave myself the choice of breaking them. Some days the poem was a random choice - eyes closed, picking blind from the poetry shelf, then opening the book, also at random. Only I decided not to do that every day because I knew I'd cheat. So I might chose a poem I half remembered but wanted to remember better; other days, a deliberate selection of poet, or poetry book; perhaps a first line that made me want to read on, or a title, or a metaphor that jumped out. Sometimes it was a poem related to the day, or what was in the paper, or what was going on around me. Sometimes I Googled through one of the many poetry sites online. Sometimes I just chose a poem for no reason. As the year went on, I started to ask friends and acquaintances to suggest poems. Their choices have surprised and delighted me.
Often, at the beginning of a week, I've wondered where to go for the next poem; even thought I'd run out of inspiration, didn't know where to look next. And then, somehow, magically, the poem arrived, as though it had flown in through my open window and landed on the kitchen table with a joyful flap of wings. And maybe that poem led on to another, and another, a trail of images and words and ideas. I've rediscovered old poems from my childhood, found entirely new ones by writers I'd never heard of. I never thought, at the beginning of the year, that I'd be writing a journal - I'm not a journal kind of person, but somehow I was, and somehow I did…