How to be a poetry ninja.

Recently, I’ve started thinking that we poets — and a lot of our non-writerly supporters in the wider poetosphere — spend far too much time whinging about the negative, incorrect assumptions and attitudes that poetry seems to inspire in people, the lack of time given over to poetry, the lack of poetically-minded readers, etc etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a crying shame that not everyone in this world is smart enough to realise that Philip Larkin or William Carlos Williams should obviously beat JK Rowling or Dan Brown in a what-to-read-next deathmatch… but let’s stop moaning about it, and be proactive! Teaching sixteen-year-olds has made me realise that even the most stubborn poetry preconception can be shifted by finding creative ways to inject amazing poetry into the lives of cynics. I’m basically talking about quietly ambushing your favourite poetry naysayer with great literature that they can’t help but love, sneaking great poetry into other people’s lives and seeing what happens. Even those pesky one-paperback-per-year-type readers can be converted. The trick is stealth!

Not all poetry is like Keats.
For most people, poetry was something you hated about school (personally, I loved every second of English but dreamed about throttling my PE teacher with the gnawed-off hem of my gym skirt. Everyone’s different). My parents frighten me with horror stories of having to recite Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by heart (with skelps across the knuckles if they got a line wrong), and people who are about my age whinge about Carol Ann Duffy’s infamous onion poem and the stupid essay questions dreamed up by the exam board. However, thinking about poetry as nothing more than a boring school subject is plain daft — French is a whole complex language spoken by millions of people, it’s not just a series of exercises in a textbook, is it?! Poetry is the same, it’s a huge, living, breathing entity, and if you’re a canny poetry ninja you can show the people around you that there’s so much more to it than the dusty old (non-)favourites. For sufferers of school-room dread, try these tactics:
– Take ‘em out to an open mic that you know features poetry. You don’t have to tell them that the P word might be involved, just convince them it’ll be a good night and get them there. Poetry at open mics can be wonderful, or it can be terrible, but one thing you can pretty much always guarantee is: it’s different. This’ll be a good way of a) showing your cynical friend that there’s more to poetry than just textbook exercises, and b) it’ll be a good springboard for a poetic discussion. Ask them what they liked, what they didn’t and why. They might just think differently about poetry thereafter.
– Find out which poem really terrified them at school, and write a parody of it. Even better: there are heaps of poems out there about the horrors of high school English… find a couple out. Billy Collins is a good place to start for this.
– Challenge your friend to write a poem, and if they refuse, offer a reward. It might just be that you’ll do the washing up for them or give them a lift somewhere, or they might need more encouragement… you can always just bet them that they can’t, get them feeling competitive! Writing a poem can really make you realise how much goes into the process, and it can bring new respect for people who do it regularly.

Not all poetry is boring.
Some people have no reason to dislike poetry, they’ve just heard it’s boring and/or difficult (probably from someone in the tortured-at-school category) and decided to believe that, because there aren’t too many people around fighting poetry’s corner. These people are the easiest to convert, mainly because their preconceptions are just plain wrong, and all you need to do is show ‘em that! Things to try:
– Something I’ve learned: the way you talk about poetry influences how the people around you see it. The best teachers are the ones who can speak with real zeal and passion about their subject, so you can’t help but be interested. If you can speak about poetry in a way that makes it sound exciting and intriguing — but without ramming it down the throats of your listeners — that can be half the battle. I always talk about Allen Ginsberg as a literary rockstar, for example… I really love his work and his fascinating personal story, and because of that I can’t help but talk about him like he’s a hero. I’ve converted heaps of people — they’ve just “checked him out” after hearing me talk about him.
– Speaking of great personal stories… if your cynical friend discovers that poets themselves can be far, far from boring, they might get more interested in their work. Throw a fancy dress party with a Byronic theme, so your resident cynic has to read up on Byron’s wild and wicked ways. Lend them a copy of Simon Armitage’s great Gig, or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, or Charles Bukowski’s Factotum. Lend/buy them Barfly or The Dead Poets’ Society or The Lost Weekend or Educating Rita. Show them literature is cool.
– Mix your media… trick your friend into reading/hearing poetry! Play them the Clash songs that feature Allen Ginsberg, send them a funky animated movie from Youtube (which just happens to have a poem read over it…), or introduce them to poems by musicians like Tom Waits or visual artists like Yoko Ono. Don’t ask them what they think to this stuff, just let them see it!

Not all poetry is irrelevant flowery nonsense.
Plenty of people think all poems rhyme, are full of thees and thous and devote stanza after stanza to describing flowers… naturally this stuff is just for funerals and greetings cards and not relevant to them in any way, they say. Obviously, you and I know this is not true, but its a common misconception! Again, this is a fairly easy one to deal with… just show your cynic the evidence!
– Host your own informal poetry reading. Just do it from your living room — invite all your friends to find a poem they like (not necessarily one they’ve written) to read out. To make sure your cynic shows up, offer a prize for the best reading — the chance of a free bottle of wine will entice people to do all sorts of things! Ask your cynic why they chose the poem they did. It’ll make them think about what it’s really about and why they like it.
– If your mate reckons poetry is just for greetings cards, hold them to it! Any time you send them a birthday, Christmas, thank you or get well card, stick a poem in it… but make sure it’s one you’d never normally find printed in a card! Think Philip Larkin’s This be the verse (”they fuck you up, your mum and dad…”), or a snippet of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown.
– Find a poem about something your cynic loves, and give it to them in some form. Whether their passion is football or Formula 1, knitting or baking bread, chances are there’s a poem about it. Show them it’s not all flowers.

Any more poetry ninja tips? Have you ever converted a friend to poetry? If so, how did you do it?!

(Photo by Robert Couse-Baker)

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32 Responses to “How to be a poetry ninja.”

  1. Mairi Sharratt Says:

    Well done Claire.

    You are right, far too much moaning “why can’t they all see how brilliant we are” and not enough meeting people where they are at.

    Of course we can’t convert everyone, but there is a host of poetry in everybodies lives which is well disgused and outside of a dust jacket. It’s about instilling a love of words, their playfullness and suprises.

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  3. swiss Says:

    t’s mother, who is about a kazillion times more interested than my parents have ever been i.e. not only does she read what i write she talks about it too, keeps, as an old lady should, a pile of things i’m in on her couch to pester visitors with. one of those having had something or other foisted upon them commented, hmmmm, modern.

    t’s mum, obviously assimilated (that ref just for you), glared at her and asked what do you mean by that? to which her visitor said poetry should rhyme. cue old lady spat.

    top woman. didn’t read poetry up until a couple of years ago and now has pamphlets in her house. christmas at mine for that woman!

    p.s> we brought something back for you from our travels. have not caught up on emails but watch your inbox

  4. Jim Murdoch Says:

    Much as I’m fond of Cooper Clarke’s style I actually think Christopher Eccleston reciting ‘Evidently Chickentown’ from the TV movie Strumpet is something else entirely.

  5. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » In a manner of speaking… Says:

    [...] to convert The General Public through bells-and-whistles publicity and BBC documentaries, I say we go stealth… one person at a [...]

  6. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Ways to celebrate National Poetry Day (that’s today!) Says:

    [...] a poem round your office in a group email, send someone you love a card with a poem inside, or take the guerilla approach and fling a printed-out or torn-out poem at an unsuspecting stranger in the street. Whatever you [...]

  7. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » The poetry ninja’s Christmas gift guide. Says:

    [...] poetry ninja’s Christmas gift guide. I hope you’re all still up to your poetry ninja tricks… and don’t go thinking you can take Christmas as time off! This is possibly the [...]

  8. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » End-of-year resolutions for poets. Says:

    [...] 6. Commit an act of poetic terrorism, Christmassy or otherwise. [...]

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    [...] poetry’s ninja’s Christmas… OK, I’ll be honest, poetry ninjas… if you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet, you’re officially a [...]

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