Studying Poetry at University by Niamh Clarke


Niamh is originally from Dundalk, Co.Louth. She received her BA in English and Philosophy from NUI, Galway. She is currently studying a Diploma in Journalism from The Irish Academy of Public Relations and has a FETAC certificate in Print Journalism from Dún Laoghaire Further Education Institute. She is the writer at the blog The Essay Yeti. She has edited several books and has an ITEC certificate in Proofreading and Editing. Niamh is based in Louth and is working as a freelance journalist. She is also editor and writer for the newsletter at National Learning Network, Dundalk branch.

 

 

 

I could never forget my first lecture on poetry at NUI, Galway, during my BA in English and Philosophy there. It was truly unprecedented and had a great effect on me. The poetry lecturer was the passionate and insightful kind who opened up intelligent avenues of thought, and transferred her enthusiasm superbly. She designed the lecture to incorporate a fantastic analysis of the carpe diem motif in poetry, comparing Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ with – wait for it – Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself‘.

You had to be there to appreciate the atmosphere in the lecture theatre: blasting out on the speakers was ‘Lose Yourself’. The comparison was so unexpected: Robert Herrick and Eminem? Who would ever have known that the two had so much in common?! It was not as wacky as the idea first appeared: sometimes it takes someone brilliant to point out the brilliance in others. And, sitting in that lecture hall, September upon us and a new term starting, poetry undergraduates could hear a pin drop as the crescendo of Eminem’s chorus left a stunned silence:

‘You better lose yourself in the music, the moment

You own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.’

 

These words from Eminem were compared with the words of Robert Herrick:

 

‘That age is best which is the first,

When youth and blood are warmer;

But being spent, the worse, and worst

Times still succeed the former’.

 

The point was made excellently on that first day of lectures: poetry matters and comes in many forms. We were challenged to rethink what poetry was. Even artists from different times, different cultures, can be united in poetry. And be it Herrick or Eminem, we are deeply affected by poetry and by its pervading plea to us to not waste our time. What could be more relevant?         

And seizing the day is a theme that runs through the veins of some of the greatest poems. The magic of Herrick was juxtaposed with the, perhaps overlooked, poetic merits of rap artist, Eminem. From that day on, I treated poetry differently and kept a lookout for it in the more unexpected places. Most of all, I’ve learned how poetry crops up in so many ways, carving unbidden places in consciousness as we go about our days; the transformation that the words in a poem can create within, metamorphosing the ordinary, calling us to think in different ways about both life and language, is something that still fascinates me.

During my studies in poetry, I realised that reading a poem is in itself an act of deep, often surprising thought, and, in so many creative ways, is a defiance of the mundane. The best poems remind us to live life while we still can. Even the seemingly bleak poem ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin implicitly calls us to action: life will not wait for you so seize the moment before the ‘Postmen like doctors’ call to your door! Our ‘sure extinction’ which is the impossible predicament of the speaker in Larkin’s ‘Aubade‘, and by extension all of us, reminds us of our numbered days and how we live on borrowed time:

‘The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true’.

 

Philip Larkin tackles the issue of death in ‘Aubade’ in a way like no other. His ominous poem serves as a stark reminder and powerfully invokes the carpe diem motif:

Throughout my English degree, I was exposed to many poets and detailed analysis of them: from T.S Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Dennis O’Driscoll, John Donne, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Edmund Spenser, Eavan Boland, Charles Simic, Margaret Atwood, Philip Sydney, William Carlos Williams, Chaucer, Eminem. I was hooked and still am. I encountered poets and poems which transformed my conceptions of poetry. For example, the sublime imagist poet, William Carlos Williams, and his streamline poem, ‘This Is Just To Say‘, resembling something written on a post-it:

 

‘I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold’

 

 

Williams’ modernist poetry was so crisp and precise in its imagery. It shocked me. I had never before seen a poem that embodied the polar opposite of ornate language. It doesn’t deviate or meander – it just is. It seems simple but is profound and striking, has many layers of semantic complexity underneath the complexion of bare language. That style of stripped back, image-rich poetry emblazoned itself upon my imagination. I discovered that I favoured this minimalist approach in both architecture and poetry. In a few well-designed, honed stanzas, ‘This is Just to Say’ reiterated the carpe diem motif clearly for me: the poem is a moment that captures a small, guilty, pleasurable moment, the eating of the cold plums and the elevation of this potentially mundane moment. In the truth sense of seizing the moment, Williams grabs onto a small, everyday moment and transforms it into the sublime. The poem is intimate – like a thoughtful note left out for a lover. It leaves so much unsaid and raises so many questions: who is speaking in the poem, what is the nature of the relationship between the speaker and her interlocuter, and why did the poet choose this above all others to capture? The many questions raised in a few simple stanzas were surprising, rich, deep ones.

Another poem which has not left my mind since my degree is ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Charles Simic. It is worth including it here in its entirety:

 

‘Buck has a headache. Tony ate

a real hot pepper. Sylvia weighs

herself naked on the bathroom

scale. Gary owes $800 to the

Internal Revenue. Roger says

poetry is the manufacture of lightning rods.

Jose wants to punch his wife

in the mouth. Ted’s afraid

of his own shadow. Ray talks

to his tomato plants. Paul

wants a job in the post office

selling stamps. Mary keeps

smiling at herself in the mirror.

 

And I,

I piss in the sink

with a feeling of

eternity’.

 

At first, it’s hard to know what to feel about Simic’s poem: shock, revulsion, curiosity, humour, confusion all spring to mind. The poem is full of strange snippets, and the oddity and absurdity of these details create a poem that is memorable and bizarre. And yet there is meaning in the strange little poem. Life is crystalised into sentences; the peculiarities of the human condition are captured. Each line serves a little confession, although the confessions range from the mostly banal to even the violent. The snippets of strange and very personal confessions give the impression that human beings have eccentricities and desires that are unique and often secret. The poem reveals each person’s little desires and behaviours. And what can be said for the end stanza when the poem shifts into the first person after a barrage of third person confessions? It is a striking last verse, no doubt, and the word ‘eternity’ gives a sort of strange and religious dignity to an otherwise irreverent verse. This ‘eternity’ is a moment of bliss within the mundanity of life: going to the bathroom is put upon a pedestal. Perhaps this acts to remind the reader to find the bliss even in the ordinary, everyday actions. And perhaps this strangely calls us back to the carpe diem motif even if it’s in a strange and offensive manner.

Another poem that struck me during my studies is ‘Astrophil and Stella 1: Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show’. This is a curious poem that problematises the act and difficulty of writing and, in this way, showcases the carpe diem motif:

‘Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write’.
The speaker, in this poem by Philip Sydney, struggles to express himself and how he feels about his lover.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;

 

The desperate speaker of the poem pins his hopes on reading. Reading is elevated as his only hope. If only she would read his work and then glean how he feels and the magnitude of his love. With unusual imagery of pregnancy at the end – ‘this great with child to speak’, the poem is a battle cry to, urging both the speaker of the poem and the reader to seize the moment. Seizing the moment is done in this poem by writing. The expression of the speaker is the ultimate act of carpe diem.

 

During my degree I fell in particular in love with T.S Eliot. His poem ”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock‘ is my favourite poem of his. This poem reminds me constantly in every reading to seize the moment. The speaker in the poem is unable to grasp the moment, everything eludes him: meaning, love, truth. And this desperate seeking of stability and meaning that pervades the poem serves to emphasise the point: don’t become like the speaker. Do not ‘measure out‘ your life ‘in coffee spoons’.

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

 

The speaker confides his fear. It is a fear of a boring, superficial, predictable life. It is the kind of life he so desperately tries to escape throughout the poem. Ultimately the speaker cannot escape his own mind and is searching desperately for meaning. This poem argues against a life ruled by fear and shallowness. In a poignant way, in keeping with the theme of carpe diem, T.S Eliot provides a warning against the life of his own speaker.

Although I am surely biased, I believe that everyone should study poetry in depth – I think the world would be a lot more thoughtful and appreciative of the magic of language as a result! When I think of how technology has changed language, we can all be somewhat careless with what we post on online. Language is so much more immediate online but the instant gratification of technology has, in ways, caused us to be less thoughtful with our words. Poetry causes us to pause before the page – something to consider before you post or read. Wouldn’t the world be enhanced if language was treated, in both interpretation and creation, in a more sacred manner?

And Galway was the place to be for both poets and students. With The Over The Edge writing competition run by the poets Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar DuMars. These married poets also offered a reasonably priced poetry class, which I attended and loved, in Galway city centre. I dabbled in verse myself and discovered more about what it takes to be a poet (a lot of talent and determination) but in time found I was more at home writing about poets.

So, studying poetry at third level¹?  Why do it? The critical skills you gain are invaluable as well as an appreciation for the creative and unexplainable aspects of poetry. The more knowledge and connections you can make – the richer the experience of poetry becomes. And yes, some things are not open to analysis or categorisation but the links that can be made, like the ones between Herrick and Eminem, can expand our interpretations and meaning of poetry.

I was always drawn to poetry and I knew from a young age that I wanted to study it at university. My appreciation for poetry began long before my degree but my degree gave me the confidence to read more deeply. It was my father who first introduced me to the magic of poetry: from short rhyming stories in his head to his vivid memories of his neighbour, the poet Patrick Kavanagh – I was shown how writing is truly subline and most sacred. Dad told me about how Patrick Kavanagh had a particular and deliberate slow walk; details like that sparked my intrigue in the Monaghan poet. But it was studying English at third level that gave me the skills to verbalise how poetry made me feel and think.

Poems are lifeboats. I truly believe that poetry fills a great need inside: that need to experience language at the level of the extraordinary. We need poetry. We need it to both ground us and transport us. It is, in a way, a place for us to go to, to travel in the thoughts, brilliance and eloquence of others and find that we need to seize the moment. Be it political or philosophical – the ordinary is made unique and we are called to listen.

I appreciate now more than ever that I studied poetry and I encourage anyone to do it, especially at the excellent NUI, Galway which has a varied and talented English department (again I know I’m biased!).  People wonder at how practical a subject is but I found the process deeply practical. Close reading is an essential tool, giving students the means to express the many layers of meaning in a work. Poetry is often timeless and the experience of poetry is one that is open to everyone. In the end, I think we are repaired with every line!

¹ Third level refers to education system in Ireland – I.E university level either undergraduate or postgraduate