On Monday 18th November, I performed one of my poems to a room of peer at the launch event for Merton’s Michaelmas term poetry pamphlet. I’ve been writing poetry for absolutely ages, but this was the first time I’ve ever publicly performed any. I’ve got to admit it was an exhilarating experience; to hear words that I’d scratched into paper suddenly filling the air, and to have others share their opinion, including one friend of mine who told me that one of my lines had made them a little teary… it was a newfound joy. And I think that ‘newfound joy’ is key to what makes poetry so special.
One of Merton’s chaplains recently described poetry to me as ‘opening up new ways of knowledge.’ Not new information, not new experiences, but rather discovering ways to articulate and understand feelings and ideas we already have, in a new way. Ironically, this was a feeling I’d always had about poetry but didn’t know how to express. That sensation, of finding yourself captured within the page is utterly transformative. It’s as if someone you’ve never met has put a stethoscope to your soul. Certainly, this was a feeling that I felt during the launch of the poetry pamphlet.
A Brief Aside on Writing Poetry
Reading poetry is a fantastic route to finding these new ways of knowledge, but I also find that writing it can lead to these moments of epiphany too. The poem I submitted to Pekes and Pollicles (Merton’s poetry pamphlet) was an attempt to imagine a life lived through colourful imagery- the green of grass grazed knees, the crimson of cold ears, the yellow of daffodils and so on. It started as a fun experiment, but it quickly grew away from that- it became an imagining of a life I could theoretically live, a life that any of us could live.
And the beautiful thing about poetry, of course, is that that’s just my perspective. Everyone I know, if given that brief, would create something entirely different, and yet every single poem would be true. As Billy Collins once said in his Masterclass advert, “Poetry provides us with a history of the human heart,” and that history differs with every lens you look at it through.
As well as myself, there were submissions by 15 other fantastic Oxford poets. I’ve got to admit, before attending I wasn’t entirely expecting the quality to be high (they’d let my poem in, for crying aloud!) but having set there and listened to each read in turn over the course of half an hour, I was amazed. Each poem was a window into a new perspective, that took an element of life I’d known or I could imagine and held up a prism through which to understand it anew. It was like a firework show: with each stunning display of colours, there was little more I could do than gasp and grin with delight. One of my friends wrote a poem that reflected on their experience of Oxford so far in the style of a medieval manuscript- the effect was a beautifully intricate puzzle box that began merely as an aesthetic distraction but within moments of pondering descended a rabbit hole of contemplation and enlightenment. Although I’d spent most of the term so far with them, I felt like I’d been shifted to see it through their eyes now: the act of reading let me see my own experiences from an entirely different perspective. Another poem, entitled ‘Perseus Approaches,’ was about Medusa’s slaying at the hands of Perseus from her perspective. Although such experiences of mythic proportions are far detached from my every day life, as I listened to the poem being read I found myself transported, trapped beneath the writhing snakes, helplessly waiting. There were a few lines (such as ‘I close the very eyes that granted me this fate/ and, with shaky breath, I wait’) that I can’t read even now without getting a chill.
But, to return for a second, to ‘opening up new ways of knowledge’ I think it’s appropriate to quote Alan Bennet. (Yes, that might be the most Oxford thing I’ve ever said.)
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.Alan Bennet, the History Boys
I’ve felt that feeling so many times. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106, for example. The ‘Kneel’ monologue from Fleabag. Parts of East Coker from Eliot’s Four Quartets. It’s the strangest thing- at once intimate and exposing. But what I certainly didn’t expect was to feel it sat in the Junior Common Room, listening to my peers recite their poetry. I submitted my poem thinking it’d be a fun way to meet new people, but I left that first session feeling genuinely enriched. I’d seen new perspectives, I’d learnt new ways of knowledge, and I’d discovered my passion for poetry reinvigorated entirely.
Thank you to Verity, Juliana and Alex for organising the event and every poet who wrote something beautiful and expanded my gaze.