A Review of The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
It is very easy to lack perspective in 2019. I remember it being said when I was young, but there is a real danger now of being stuck in a kind of permanent present, in which history and the arts are always available, but somehow out of reach. Indeed, lacking perspective is also a problem for adults. The irrational spats on social media and inability to debate calmly are just two signs of adult regression. Moreover, there is now a dominant view that, when it comes to serious issues like Climate Change and Brexit, young people’s views (even those under 18) should be treated as seriously as adults’ views. Whatever your opinion on that, if adults rely on children for answers then you start to wonder whether adults have lost their way.
The word ‘perspective’ derives from the Latin ‘perspicere’, meaning to inspect carefully. A recently published book, The Point of Poetry, by Joe Nutt, reminds readers in 2019 of the value of poetry in seeing life, one’s history and the natural world for what it is. The careful inspection of poetry, Nutt demonstrates, is likely to foster careful inspection of everything else, a trait which can only improve a person’s life. Delightfully written, Nutt blends his experience of teaching English for 20 years, with his knowledge of poetry and literary criticism, not to mention a good deal of anecdotal wisdom. In short, it is a joy to read. However, it is the question of perspective, sadly lacking in 2019, that most struck me after reading The Point of Poetry.
In terms of structure, The Point of Poetry is divided into twenty two chapters, with a (well-known) poem as the subject for each one. Ranging from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the surviving and thriving poet, Hollie Nish, The Point of Poetry analyses some of the greatest poems in English Literature, but it achieves considerably more than this. Poetry, as an art form, is frequently disassociated with reality, as though it has nothing to do with people’s lives. Hence the question, what is the point of poetry? In answering this formidable question, Nutt places poetic interpretation into the heart of the contemporary world. There are insights into class, the natural world, social media and relationships. In truth, I could make little sense of Nutt’s chapter order; he certainly does not deal with his chosen poems chronologically. Each chapter concludes with the poem (or sections) for the reader to enjoy. One of the achievements of Nutt’s writing is that, by the time he has introduced a poem, you feel more than ready to read it. If nothing else, The Point of Poetry boasts a fine collection of poems, irrespective of Nutt’s commentary.
Still, I was very much sold on the insight that The Point of Poetry offers about contemporary life. Take his poems on nature, including Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry Picking’ and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Sea and the Skylark’. In a period in which care for the environment is considered paramount it is an oversight that few protestors cite the work of poets like Heaney, whose rural upbringing developed a unique perspective on the relationship between human beings and inexorable Nature. For instance, the blackberries in the poem rot to the dismay of the narrator, and there is nothing that he can do about it. As Nutt points out, we often want what is fair, forgetting that laws of nature are very rarely fair. In Nutt’s words, we need “not righting, but writing.” At the same time, Hopkins’ ‘The Sea and the Skylark’ might make all generations think about their relationship to the natural world, since the sound of the skylark may not be appreciated when humans are so preoccupied with man-made materialism. The key to protecting the environment could be found in engaging with, and feeling humble before, the natural world.
Poetry also has so much to offer in understanding our ownership and manipulation of language. Poetry is, Nutt reminds us, an art form which demands language precision. It is interesting that protestors do not march in London at the lack of poetry reading in schools: their command of language is as important to their futures as their command of carbon emissions. Poetry, Nutt points out, is integral to truly understanding English language. “Poets pack meaning into a few words”, he claims, which is an insightful way of reminding us that, all too often, people say or write a great deal without being entirely meaningful. I find this one of the most enlightening parts of Nutt’s guide. He reminds us how poetic language can say so much in such a concise way: Marvell’s characterisation of “Time’s winged chariot” in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a famous example.
Nutt’s returns to the importance of language in his chapter on Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’: “Words are not playthings, the Lego blocks of language. They are the currency of intelligence”. English language students are drip-fed the notion that all language use is equally relevant and valuable: it is not the role of linguists to prescribe how to use it. However, if we accept Nutt’s premise that language itself is inherently powerful, then the words we use in all contexts should be subject to prescription. Of course, it is so easy to send a text, write a comment on social media and write a review; it is understandable that people become profligate with word choice. Great poets, Nutt reminds us, use language carefully and mindfully.
In ‘The Gun’ chapter, Nutt offers an informed guide to the misunderstandings of guns themselves, based on his experience as a shooting instructor. Like guns, words can be used like weapons and, if we understood that, it might change attitudes to literal weapons. Significantly, it is unhelpful to pay too much attention to the identity of writers, ahead of the quality of their work. Hearing the words, rhythm and voice of prose is far more important that focusing upon the demographics of the writer. Recently on Twitter a Head of English was asking for names of authors that might entertain her students in an “culturally diverse” school; the white, pale and stale writers (as they are now generally being called) were not likely to engage her students, she felt. That a Head of English can only see past the value of the gender and ethnicity of writers when introducing a novel speaks volumes about the way that English literature, including poetry, is often de-valued. If it makes English teachers feel better they can go around saying that King Lear was written by a two year old (as long as they are reading the text with students).
Nutt’s closing chapter focuses on Milton’s Paradise Lost. In a recurring theme he points out that readers should not feel that poetry is inaccessible, that somehow the canon was written for only a small proportion of the population. Similarly, the work of contemporary performance poet, Hollie Nish, is an opportunity to celebrate the gritty nature of niche performance art. Like standup comics, many of the best poets recite in small, unglamorous venues. It would be dangerous to assume that poetry is the preserve of the middle classes. Somehow, it seems, poetry was hijacked by privileged readers and became romantically associated with being posh and privileged. Nutt is keen to offer the less than glamorous experiences of poets, such as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. The chosen Nish poem, ‘Famous for What?’ confronts the desire of a teenager to be famous, without thinking first about her passions and values. Perhaps more than most, this chapter is prescient for the teenagers who grow up with social media accounts that promote popularity over principle.
This is not really a book apparently aimed at English teachers, although I wish I had had the opportunity to read it twenty years ago when I first started teaching. Still, The Point of Poetry is not just a call to read poetry; it is a call to re-read and think about poetry. Indeed The Point of Poetry is tantamount to the point of existence: if not engaging with art, what is the point of being alive? It is very much a book for young people, studying GCSE and A level, who have wondered what poetry is for and perhaps see their study of poetry as a chore rather than a pleasure. With witty asides and uncomplicated prose, this would provide an excellent guide to assist formal study of poetry. Still, I would go further. Teachers have to be able to put the issues of their students into perspective: teaching is a decision-maker’s job. Teachers are offered considerable training designed to improve the mental well-being of young people. Mental well-being requires perspective. This book, at least in part, is about how reading poetry can enhance one’s perspective. If every trainee teacher read and attended a book discussion on The Point of Poetry, the quality of pastoral care in UK schools would undoubtedly improve.
The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt is published by Unbound