When I ask how people are getting through lockdown, I am faced with the same one-word answer over and over again. “Netflix!” I must admit I too have been enjoying a few series, most recently The Crown. However, with TV and screen time on the rise, it means we are simply not reading as much anymore, in short, we have fallen out of the reading habit.
I suppose reading a book seems boring compared to watching an engaging drama, a light-hearted sitcom, playing a game on your phone or spending time on social media. According to The Reading Agency over 45 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 24 do not read in their spare time. Listening to the odd teenager speaking, I sense that they’d be able to express their thoughts more easily by enriching their vocabulary. We appear to be raising a highly technologically savvy next generation that will be immersed in a coding and AI job market; but may find themselves struggling to read an intermediate level book.
Reading can be incorporated into a young person’s busy day from their phone via the Kindle app. It doesn’t have to be academic or heavy-going. There is nothing wrong with a game of Candy Crush or chatting with friends on Facebook as long as they try to balance even a quarter of the time, they’ve just spent on technology reading something interesting. Reading connects young people to what’s going on around them.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic” – Stephen King
While reading a long narrative the brain is active, and the memory and imagination remain sharp. Reading for pleasure can promote better mental health and well-being, enhance understanding of the self and make us more open-minded. Reading takes us on a journey enabling us to escape into a whole new world that we can partake in forming and thereby enhances the imagination. Margaret Atwood maintains “I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.”
I have no idea about the way literature and poetry are taught in schools these days. I hope it has progressed over the last couple of decades. I’ll never forget that English literature lesson all those years ago when we had a handsome and clearly newly qualified supply teacher trying to get us to appreciate some poems by Edgar Allen Poe. Really? There we were in an inner London comprehensive girls school having to ruminate over some early 19th century dark tales of the macabre. His works were laden with strange and doomed atmospheres, despair and horror.
Needless to say, the ‘bad girls’ at the back of the class were getting more and more irate at these two-hundred-year-old American tales of doom and gloom. All of a sudden I looked up to see a pair of black lacy knickers flying through the air at a great height, which eventually landed on the young teacher’s head. He reddened with embarrassment and there were one or two wolf-whistles. The entire class roared with laughter. Fortunately for him the bell was not far off.
The literary material was totally irrelevant to our lives! Studying Gothic tales from a couple of centuries back felt utterly random to us. Why couldn’t we have studied some 20th century poems about growing up in London? Or poems about first love? Why couldn’t we have studied poems written by those inspiring British women who had gone before us? Why couldn’t we have discussed why the lyrics we were listening to on our Sony Walkman’s spoke to us on such a deep level?
An anthology of poems
Would this poor teacher have been subjected to such disobedience if we’d been given the opportunity to bring our own modern poem in, which he could have read aloud to the class? With no dissection involved, no clinical analysis and an altogether less anodyne approach, giving us the opportunity to express what we liked about it. How wonderful it could have been if teaching methods back then integrated video clips of performances of say, Jim Morrison expressing his lyrical verse in Wilderness or Seamus Heaney poeticising about his love of Ireland. The classroom would have been infused with the poets’ intense feeling, impressions and sentiment. The rhyme and rhythm would have brought the poems vividly to life.
If the pompous and ‘stuffy’ approach to poetry that has been instilled in us by conventional methods of education is removed, then we would all feel more confident about getting to grips with it. In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, set in an elite boarding school in 1959 Vermont, Mr Keating inspires his pupils by adopting unorthodox approaches to teaching poetry. He introduces his pupils to various unusual exercises such as asking them to stand on their desks and “remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way”. Or taking them out into the courtyard and asking them to pay attention to their own style of walking to trigger their awareness that they are unique and ask themselves “what makes us different?”.
Mr Keating encourages his pupils to think for themselves, asking them to tear out Pritchard’s preface to their textbook which gives an almost mathematical formula on how to evaluate a poem. Keating describes his theory as ‘excrement’ and explains: “When you read don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” He introduces them to the notion that poetry doesn’t really need to be analysed, we can just let it wash over us, enjoy it or let it induce a meditative state. Poetry has the power to connect us to ourselves.
As an art form, poetry predates literacy! It has an oral storytelling tradition relating to song, theatre and live performance. Poetry allows us to pause and experience deeper aspects of our unconscious feelings, to ruminate over imagery, universal themes and the melodious quality of words. Its aesthetic content and nuances of meaning and assonance can have incantatory effects on the reader. Poetry is timeless, soulful and has the power to renew us, and yet in an age saturated with technology, many of us simply don’t even consider reading a poem.
If I were Prime Minister for a day, I would recommend a daily poetry prescription for everybody in the land! Read a poem a day. Poems are short and it would only take a few minutes. From Emily Dickinson to Baudelaire; from Maya Angelou to Elizabeth Barret Browning; from Derek Walcott to Anna Akhmatova. Think of your favourite subjects and read poems about them. The Poetry Foundation mobile app can be downloaded for free.
Poetry can be read on a tablet or e-reader
My love affair with poetry began in my early teens. Then, as a literature student, I enjoyed attending occasional poetry readings and going to the poetry library at the South Bank. It was a labyrinth of bookshelves packed with every type of poetry from every country you could imagine. When I had an hour to spare, I’d sit and watch videos of poets talking about their work. Ted Hughes was pretty intense. Allen Ginsberg was the chattiest. Ezra Pound was the weirdest.
These days, I have the pleasure of reading a weekly poem aloud on the local Radio Verulam. It was an experiment at first, but the DJ Jonny Seabrook enjoys integrating it into his show ‘Good Morning St Albans – It’s Saturday’ and, much to my surprise, I am told that listeners don’t switch off as soon as its poetry time!
Often, the reason we all appreciate a good book very often is because on some level we can relate to it. As we’re living through these somewhat grim and significant historical moments, we need to remember Stephen King’s words: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
The trick is to manage our time wisely. If Joseph Addison, American poet and essayist was right, “reading to the mind is what exercise is to the body”. Many of us, especially tomorrow’s children, are pretty out of shape. We maybe need to ask ourselves: Do we feel that it is personally important to us to remain literate in a world where we can seemingly rely on an ever-increasing influx of new technology and digital platforms? It’s up to you.
- Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife .