Allergic To Poetry?

Ryan Van Winkle – Reader-in-Residence at the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh City Libraries flags up unique ways to get poetry into your life.

Feature by Ryan Van Winkle | 06 Nov 2008
  • Edinburgh poet Ali Maloney drops another apocalyptic verse

The man was eating a ham sandwich when I offered him a poem.

“No thanks,” he said, “I'm allergic.”

He wiped a bit of pickle from the crack of his mouth and continued his chew.

“You're allergic to poetry?” I puzzled, “What happens - do you get hives, watery eyes, itchy nose, abdominal pain? Diarrhea?”

“Yeah,” he swallowed, “all of that. Diarrhea – hate it.”

“You know you're sitting in the 'Poetry Gardens' at the moment, how you feeling?”

“Not bad. Thanks anyway,” he said and I went away. Allergic to poems. Not a bad response to our covert strategy to bring poetry into people's daily grind.

This was on National Poetry Day in St. Andrew's Square (now dubbed ‘The Poetry Gardens’). Thankfully, not everyone was so dismissive. Most seemed pleased to stop and wonder why we were out on a cold day not trying to sell anything.

The answer was simple: we wanted to remind people of how good poetry can be. It is easy to understand why poetry is avoided. For many, reading a poem is the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables as a kid. Although you know it's good for you, some part of you resists.

Yet poetry, like any other art form, can help us articulate our thoughts and emotions in a brief and memorable fashion. On the SPL website we've got a section where musicians, artists and writers recall their favourites. Amanda Palmer from the Dresden Dolls chose the classic poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” because she remembered being fifteen and, “wandering around screaming: 'It will never get better than your expectation of What Is To Come!'” When a friend put Keats in her hands she “(imagined) Mr. Keats checking out this crazy old Grecian vase and thinking the same thoughts as my little 15-year old self ... Just goes to show we are all wired together.” In a way, that’s art – a thread that binds us.

My goal, as Reader in Residence, is to run that thread as far as possible - to help people find what they may or may not like. Online, you can look to others like Amanda Palmer, who have contributed to the website. There you'll see what poem Mark Francis (St. Jude's Infirmary) interprets as a Call To Arms and what poem acoustic-punk musician Billy Liar found to encapsulate our Edinburgh streets with the line: “I hate the bustling citizen, / The eager and hurrying man of affairs I hate.”

You can log onto the discussion forums on the SPL website or, better yet, come and have a chat with me on the first Tuesday of every month between 4 – 6pm. (That's November 4th and December 2nd for those keeping track at home.) Let me know who's on your MP3 player, how many times you've seen “Lost in Translation” or what comic books you're reading and I (almost!) guarantee I can find a poem for you. And, since poems often need to be heard, you can listen to our podcast series with new spoken word tracks from Jennifer Williams and Laertes, Why Are You Crying?, St. Jude's Infirmary, The Chemical Poets and many more along with readings of classic poems and tips on good books to sink into.

Further, if it is an eclectic live event you’re after, come to The Golden Hour – a monthly literary cabaret featuring not only poetry but music, performance art, and cartoons. This month, on November 19th at The Forest, The Zorras will be kicking their brand of "poetry-music fusion weirdness” with megaphones and a wicked loop pedal.

And if in all of that you can't find a line that lingers like a thread you want to tie around your finger - then maybe you just need to wait till one of the Poetry Army passes you on the street and hands you a poem. Unless, of course, you too are allergic.

Ryan Van Winkle is the Reader-in-Residence at the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh City Libraries. He also is a long-time member of the Forest Arts Collective and an Editor at Forest Publications which is releasing a new anthology entitled Stolen Stories in November.