Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I’ll Never be a Poet and Other Things I Learnt Whilst Studying Poetry.

When I was a teenager I harboured the secret belief that I was a great poet. I spent all my free time scribbling badly spelt poems in my notebooks then typing them up and casually leaving them lying about the place in the hope that people would read them. The inevitable discovery of my discreetly placed work led to exchanges with friends and relatives that went like this:

Them: I read your poem.
Me: No, you didn’t, did you? No one was meant to see that, that’s why I printed it in 72pt font and taped it over the TV screen. But now that you have read it, you can tell me what you think.
Them: Yeah, It’s good.
Me (out loud): No it’s not, it’s awful.
Me (in my head): I am going to be England’s youngest ever poet laureate.

At this time I also harboured the belief that true creative geniuses are plagued with self-doubt. That’s why I had to pretend to think my work was awful, even though I knew that it was only a matter of time before someone realized I was the next Shakespeare. 

My early stuff was written with the aim of being funny, and when I read over it now the jokes still make me laugh. Things changed when I hit 14. I read Jane Eyre, started wearing a cape and writing poetry with the aim of being anything but funny. I still couldn’t stop myself putting jokes in. If you put my writing for the next four years into a collection the title would be I’m Awful but I’m Still Better Than Everyone Else. The blurb would read ‘In this collection, McHugh attempts to sound like a miserable, self-loathing teenager whilst accidentally exposing herself as a cheerful little soul, drunk on her own brilliance.’.

The gap on all poetry shelves my collection would have filled  

It didn’t help that I refused to read poetry, branding everything but Spike Milligan as ‘self-indulgent shit.’ Because the War Poets were just being self-indulgent whereas I had real problems, my friends listened to music that I didn’t like.

When I got to Uni and the time came to choose my first-year modules I phoned my mum to say “I think I’m going to do poetry. I know I’m not that good at it, but it’ll be a good challenge.” I expected that class to be the place my tutor told me I had the kind of talent she had been waiting her entire career to discover. Instead, it was the place I discovered two really important things about myself. 1. I cannot write poetry but 2. I love to read it.

That first lesson was important because the world needs another bad poet like it needs another hole in the o-zone. The second lesson was more important. Learning to read poetry transformed my understanding of the world, I honestly don’t think I would be any kind of artist if it weren’t for the lessons I learnt in that poetry class. It’s weird if you study art you never talk about metaphor, but that’s essentially what conceptual art is. Study poetry and you’ll spend hours seeking out good metaphors and then dissecting them to see what makes them work. The same thing with titles, not one of my art teachers ever explained the point of a title to me. When I told my poetry tutor I didn’t see the point of titles she explained them as ‘The only chance you get to give a clue as to how you want your work to be read.’ I think about that every time I name my work.

Even my cactus loves poetry.
He copied out Sandra Beasley onto his pot. 

Of course, I hated every second, because I was slowly realizing I was wrong. I resented every class and I’m mortified to think of the fuss I kicked up, promising anyone that would listen that I would never, ever, ever pick up a single volume of poetry. The thing was we had to write this reading paper, and I spent the Christmas holidays curled up with my cat dipping in and out of the reading list so I’d have something to write about. I wouldn’t admit it until months later but that’s really when I lost the fight. I spent the rest of my first year secretly visiting the poetry section of the library. To be honest, once I was reading poetry the stuff I was writing significantly improved, but the more in love with reading it I fell, the less I felt like writing it. I can’t explain why maybe once I saw what a good poem looked like I just knew I didn’t have one in me. I turned my attention to short stories and spent a few more years trying really hard not to be funny.

I guess the moral of this story is that 18 year old me could be a bit of a brat, or that sometimes the best gifts seem like a crock of shit when you’re getting them. Which, sort of makes me feel like it was a mistake throwing out the fugly-ass cat painting someone got me for my 18th birthday. No, that’s no kind of moral, it’s impossible throwing out that cat picture was a mistake. I guess the real moral is read stuff, even stuff you think you won’t like because you aren’t as smart as you think you are and it might just change your life.

'Till Next time,


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