‘Getting’ Poetry

‘I don’t get poetry.’

It’s something every poet hears on a regular basis, generally just after they’ve confessed that yes, writing the stuff really is how they spend much of their time, and it’s pretty depressing. In fact, it’s right up there with the ‘my three-year-old could paint that’ response to modern art.

My stock response is ‘But there’s nothing to get’, and if the non-poetry reader is still listening, I might add ‘A poem’s like a room the poet’s built especially for you. You just have to walk in with all your baggage, put it down and make yourself at home’.

By then their eyes are probably glazing over, but if they’re still paying attention, I’ll urge them to wander around the room a bit. Move the chair so they can see through the window. Plump up the cushions on the settee, lie back, close their eyes and see what happens in their head. Give it time. Allow the alchemy to start.

This approach will only work, of course, if a poet has left space in the room-that-is-a-poem for the reader to bring their own hopes and experiences. Not every poet does. Poems like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ or Pam Ayres’ ‘Oh I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth’ are successful because they have an immediate, unamiguous impact. But if you’re a poet who wants their work to resonate over days or even years with a reader, or a reader who’s decided they absolutely are going to ‘get’ poetry, then this space is vital.

This last week, lots of people have asked to read my poem ‘Oystercatchers’, fresh from its triumph in the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem Competition, and they’ve said kind things about it. The most pleasing response I’ve had is from a friend of a friend, who told me that for her it was about her friend who died recently.  From my 10-line poem, she’d extrapolated her friend’s death; the power and speed of estuarine tides; a small boat sailing over the waves, as if in a Viking funeral ceremony; Aboriginal creation tales; patterns in sculpted river banks and the answers hidden in them; also, a mother’s song of children leaving. ‘The knicker elastic in my eyes is broken and the tears keep falling down,’ she added. ‘And I’m not even on drugs or had a drink – just a cup of tea and a ginger biscuit.’

Of course, for me it means something completely different, but her words allowed me to go back to the poem and look at it in a new light. And I love this. I love it when my poems go out into the world and acquire new layers of meaning, and become something far more interesting than anything I could come up with by myself. A poem only really comes into its own when it’s in the head and heart of someone else.

the giantess
The Giantess by Leonora Carrington



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Deborah Harvey’s poems have been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and broadcast on Radio 4’s Poetry Please. She has four poetry collections, Communion (2011), Map Reading for Beginners (2014), Breadcrumbs (2016), and The Shadow Factory (2019), all published by Indigo Dreams, while her historical novel, Dart, appeared under their Tamar Books imprint in 2013. Her fifth collection, Learning Finity, will be published in 2021. Deborah is co-director of The Leaping Word poetry consultancy.

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