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Poetry to the rescue!

I have had a rough time at work lately. I realise ten-hour days and a workload like standing in front of a puke-spewing fire hose is the norm in some workplaces, but it took a coworker’s sudden illness to establish that situation for me, and I don’t like it much (although I guess now I can say so with the confidence of experience). Such circumstances are not conducive to reading solid blocks of narrative force, such as novels, so my reading appetite has had to be satisfied with small, self-contained nibbles: enter poetry.

I’ve just finished reading Sylvia Plath’s first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems.  I dabbled in Plath as per the requirements of a high school course when I was in Year 12, but never really got into her stuff: I didn’t mind her poetry, but The Bell Jar was too heavy for me at the time.  And I reached uni at a time where she was pretty unpopular, so any mention of her name usually elicited eye-rolling, which made it even easier to reject her stuff outright. But! Time does strange things to your head, I suppose, and I decided to give her another go.  And I’m really glad I did.  Colossus has been mind-blowing; the sharpness and forcefulness of the imagery is rocking my world, especially the contrast between images relating to nature — gardens (especially neglected gardens: The Burnt-Out Spa, The Manor Garden, Departure), animals (Sow, Blue Moles) and wilderness (coastlines, cliffs, rocks and boulders: Hardcastle Crags, Lorelei, Man in Black, A Winter Ship) — and images relating to buildings, people and constructions (Night Shift, Medallion, Snakecharmer, Suicide Off Egg Rock).

I found it really good to gently chip away at this book, taking in just one poem and thinking about it for a while, going back and forth over it until I really felt like I grokked it. Then I would move on to another one; I often found myself flicking back after reading a later poem and re-reading the earlier poems with the later poem in mind, giving me a different perspective.  As a result, despite approaching the collection as something I could nibble at between chaotic episodes at work, I got a really strong sense of cohesive themes, which it a ripe sense of unity and wholeness. I think it takes a lot of skill to work with a group of closely-related themes and image motifs in poetry and not have it come out sounding like a gift-shop collection. (Oh, you know the sort of thing: “A Posy of Poems for Gardeners” or “A Quilt of Poems for Patchworkers”. Gag me.

I suspect reading poetry is a slightly different skill to reading, say, fiction or essays or blog posts, and I’ve reached a stage where I want to develop that skill more.  Whenever I had to study poetry in high school or uni (and it was always “had to”), I could understand what the teacher wanted us to look for, and when they walked us through a poem, I could see the points they were trying to make — but poetry never really spoke to me and I’ve never really read it recreationally. But something in the grey pulp of my head seems to have clicked (or squelched) and it’s making more and more sense to me now.  And I want more!  I’ve been playing around the edges of the Poetry Foundation‘s website, which is interesting and cool and, I think, a good gateway to finding other poets and poetry. I feel a bit like I’m dabbling in the shallows of a very big, very beautiful coral reef.

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