My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came across Joe Nutt’s introduction to poetry for the metrophobe – the person who doesn’t like or ‘get’ poetry – through a review from Dr Oliver Tearle’s excellent literary site, Interesting Literature.
The idea of the book appealed to me. I teach poetry to English students, mostly GCSE and A Level ones, and the majority of them study the subject under considerable duress. They really don’t ‘get it’ at all when it comes to poetry. I sympathise. I didn’t get it at their age either and it can still leave me cold. Nor am I a natural with understanding poetry even now – after decades of teaching students to understand it, perhaps appreciate it, occasionally love it. I can read some poems and find myself thinking “I don’t have a foggiest of a clue what that was about!”.
Nutt’s book seemed a perfect resource to use. Firstly, a great collection of poems to work through. Some well known, of course. Others, such as Hollie McNish’s ‘Famous For What?’, less so. Then, a potted summary and analysis aimed at those who might be reluctant to engage. This would be super for me, I thought. I’m always looking for new ways, new insights, new ideas, to incorporate into my teaching techniques. On the front cover, the publishers boast that the book will show ‘How Poetry Can Teach Us About the Things in Life That Really Matter’. Fab. This book will be relevant.
Oh dear. What a disappointment the pages proved to be. I guess not judging a book by its cover works in both directions sometimes.
The book is still a useful resource -twenty-two poems which are, every single one, wonderful examples of the finest poetry has to offer. I will refer to some of these often and I am grateful to the author for deepening my love of Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes. For this reason, I’ve given three stars in my rating.
But Nutt’s musings on these pieces are, frankly, awful. I wouldn’t want him anywhere near my students and I’m aghast he’s considered ‘one of the leading educationalists in the UK’ according to the book blurb. I hope he advises and guides better than he writes. The book is full of nothing but the rants of an often angry old man with occasional moments of waxing lyrical about the stuff he really likes.
Nutt attacks poetry he doesn’t approve of. He slaughter’s McNish’s poetry, admitting near the end of his essay that he effectively added her as an example of bad poetry. He has nothing but bad things too to say about Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’ for what he perceives to be an error in the mechanics of how a shotgun should operate. He goes on about how much of an expert in using guns he is and how he even won an award for preventing an armed robbery. He does this to dismiss things Feaver has said about her poem and to trash it. Frankly, he makes himself seem very small in doing so. There are so many reasons why he might be wrong but, even if he’s right, since when did poets stick to the accurate laws of science? Let’s kick out all the romantic poets with their golden (actually yellow) daffodils and sunshine kissing the earth and nonsense shall we?
By contrast, he writes the longest and most deadly boring soliloquy about Milton ‘Paradise Lost’. If I gave this essay to any of my students to read I would succeed in killing any chance of getting them to love poetry. I found myself hating Milton purely from the opinionated nonsense Nutt splurged onto the page here. It’s not a good sign when a book on poetry actually leads you further away from wanting to read any.
If this book had been presented as one English teacher’s thoughts on various loved, or hated, poems, then this would have been okay. It would have been more honest, for sure. But from the very beginning Nutt turns his back on the title and front cover. He quickly admits he’s not interested in giving an analysis of each poem (because that, apparently, turns students off poetry) and from then on spends more time recollecting his own memories and criticising a range of subjects he doesn’t like to only tangentially make a link to the actual poems he’s talking about. Some of the essays are better than others, of course, and occasionally I learned something. But on the whole, I read each essay with a frown on my face and often a look of disgust.
The one good thing I came away with was that I must be doing something right with my own teaching because, most of the time, I usually manage to unlock some of the doors to poetry. I do this by appreciating where students are coming from.
The trick is in explaining that poems don’t say what they mean – and do so in very few lines. They are a puzzle, an exercise to analyse because without doing so they will mean nothing. They invite the reader and listener to interpret them according to where each individual has come from. We bring our own experiences, our own baggage, our own loves, fears, battles and prejudices to each poem. Within all that, the poet calls us to hear what the poet was trying to say. Poems are metaphors – they say one aspect of the message explicitly but deliberately don’t say the other, more important, aspect at all – you really do read ‘between the lines’. Reading and loving poetry is as much about psychology as it is about understanding structures, metres and the various devices the poet has at their disposal. Joe Nutt, somehow, fails completely to understand this. Or, at least, he fails to communicate it in his book. His intent was there but the outcomes fall short.
If you want a collection of poems you can refer to, or be introduced to, then, fair enough, buy this book. But there are better ways to spend your money and considerably better ways to develop a love of poetry. My recommendation is go to Interesting Literature itself and sign up for email notifications for that website. It is brilliant, positive in the love of poetry and, best of all, free.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 2.9 million times.