POETRY BELONGS TO US ALL or WHY I WROTE APPLE AND RAIN
by Sarah Crossan
My debut was a verse novel called The Weight of Water. I am proud of that book. It won awards and critics liked it. My parents liked it (which is not something every writer can say!). The Weight of Water is not a difficult book and it’s quite short – you could probably read it in two hours. And yet, even now, when I offer this book to friends or talk about it, the reactions from people can be rather startling.
Here is the standard response to someone being given a copy of The Weight of Water: The person flicks through the first few pages, blinks, swallows hard, and mutters, “It’s, uhh, poetry?” The question is paired with a look terror, because what this person is really trying to say is, “I hate poetry. Everyone hates poetry. Why would you write a book like this? Are you some kind of sicko?”
The truth is that most people don’t feel comfortable with poetry. They haven’t read any since high school and back then poetry was hard and boring. Plus, the poems they read had nothing to do with them.
And I understand this because I used to feel the same way. I went to an all girls convent school, and you’d think they’d have made an effort to have us study poems by women – just a few women. But no. I hardly realized women could even write poetry because we studied mostly Shakespearian sonnets and works by John Keats and Wilfred Owen and I remember feeling so lost, so disconnected, so uninterested and actually, so stupid. I remember wondering how I could fake my way through the exams by appearing to understand what I was reading. I read the Spark notes. I knew what the poems were meant to be saying and I knew how I was meant to be reacting. I did well in English throughout high school despite these fears, so I must have been pretty good at faking it. Many students are.
But now I look back, I’m starting to think that the problem wasn’t really that we were studying Shakespeare or other dead, white men; the problem was that reading poetry was a purely intellectual pursuit. And this is where we do our young people a disservice. In schools, poetry is usually chopped up into small pieces. Students are asked to explain poems. To dissect. To master. And surely this is the easiest way to kill anything for young people. Because that’s not how art should be approached. We don’t look at paintings and begin by chopping them up. We don’t listen to music in bite-sized chunks and get teenagers to explain away the melody. With most other art forms we allow people to respond emotionally first and foremost. We allow people to be led by their hearts. How does this song make you feel? And this is the purpose of art; to draw out our humanity by provoking emotion. And yet when it comes to poetry we don’t allow this. We want to know what it all means and if we can’t comprehend it entirely, we have somehow failed. What better way to put people off something than by telling them they aren’t smart enough for it?
And I find this so sad because I truly believe that poetry belongs to everyone. Why do I believe this? Well, poetry is the first language we speak. When we were toddlers we could string together rhymes and songs long before we could articulate feelings or desires. It was how we learned to talk. One, two, three, four, five/Once I caught a fish alive… Poetry is built into our DNA.
This is why I wrote Apple and Rain, a book about a girl struggling with life but who finds peace and ultimately a way through her problems, by writing poetry. And she does this because she has an inspiring teacher, a character called Mr Gaydon, who offers his students poetry, not as something to be conquered, but as a vehicle of self-expression and nothing more. Because what else is poetry if not a way in to ourselves? A way to feel less alone.
The rules of poetry are manmade. They aren’t like math with formulas and answers. The rules of poetry are fluid and changing and that change is down to those who write. So why shouldn’t the writer be me? Why shouldn’t the writer be you? Poetry belongs to us all. We started speaking by reciting poems and everyday we plug ourselves in to our phones and listen to music with lyrics that are made up of poetry. It is everywhere. And it is ours.
Perhaps the academics would like us to believe that poems belong to them, but we can’t let this happen. When we feel poetry slipping out of our hands we must snatch it back and use it. We must write poems and read them. And above all, we mustn’t be afraid. We must use it however we like and ignore anyone who tells us that we are doing it wrong.
Apple & Rain is shortlisted for the 2016 Children’s Book Award in the Books for Older Readers category. It is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.