Light with a skin around it
Por: Sylvie Marie
On the rules of poetry, and of peace
For years I’ve been giving poetry workshops in schools. I drop in on infants as well as adolescents. I don’t just want to tell them about my own experiences and convictions but more importantly to get them to write and discover for themselves. Sometimes I feel a bit like a missionary when I walk into a classroom. After all, it’s where the children mainly learn scientific subjects, where they’re taught to write correctly and to calculate, or to pick up facts about history and physics. In all those disciplines something is either right or wrong, and the distinction is explained by the teachers. They’re good at that. They explain a rule to the children and get them to practice it until it becomes automatic. And so knowledge is built up. Time after time, refinements are added, complexities, but as long as there are conventions to hold onto, everyone feels at ease.
It’s different with poetry. ‘What is poetry?’ I very often ask at the start of a workshop. And then I’m frequently told, ‘It’s something that has to rhyme.’ What disheartens me more than being put off by the word ‘rhyme’ is the way they say ‘has to’. It’s an expression that belongs with knowledge, with the notion that things are right or wrong, but poetry is never right or wrong. It might possibly be moving or toe-curling. That, and everything in between. It’s a refuge for language and meaning, a game in all kinds of ways. In light of this, rhyme may be useful for poetry, but it can get in the way of the game if it becomes the aim rather than the means.
During workshops I try to teach children to let go of everything they cling to. To become sensitive to the sound, the colour and, yes, even the texture of words. To be able to turn words on their heads, to deploy their double meanings as metaphors, to become conscious of the tension and charge that a sentence gains if they break off a line. To teach them thereby to arrive at interesting discoveries. That’s where it gets difficult for some of them. All too often children put up their hands while they’re writing and ask ‘is this right?’ And all too often teachers wander about during writing lessons with a red ballpoint, circling grammatical errors. Time and again it turns out that the children who don’t collaborate fully in ordinary lessons, or who have fallen behind, are capable of clever things during my workshop. The pupils who, as I like to put it, flout all the rules, are the ones who excel at originality and who write disarming sentences. Disarming. Yes, that’s what good poetry does. Writing sentences that no red ballpoint can get a purchase on.
And so we arrive at peace. That too is not a scientific subject. Peace is far more subtle by nature. It’s about how people feel respected, how they take account of the sound, the colour, the texture of their being. So not how everyone sticks to the rules. Because any rule can grip like a vice, and by doing so generate strife.
Rules. It’s fascinating that my language, Dutch, uses the same word for rules as for lines of verse: regels. A regel is an agreement laid down, a law, but it also means a line of text on a sheet of paper. So when you write poetry, you invent regels, lines of verse. How wonderful it would be if lines of that sort could guide you in life, if poetic lines – which can be moving or toe-curling – could give you direction. So not just lines in which every effort has been made to ensure they can be interpreted in only one way.
Peace has a lot to learn from poetry. I think the power of poetry lies in the fact that the reading and writing of it creates freedom in both form and content. The freedom to choose, to feel, to play and to be. To read and write poetry is to experience the flexibility of meaning and truth. That’s also necessary if you want to achieve peace. Furthermore, the ‘upshot’ or the ‘punch line’ of a poem is often a message that creates substantive peace. It generates an upheaval that brings equilibrium, both in the meaning and in the form. The ending, the volta, disarms. It unites opposites, or makes reality merge with an image so that understanding is created. Poetry then becomes a kind of balm for the soul and the poet someone who establishes common ground.
That’s another thing about our language, Dutch. A person who writes poetry is called a dichter. In our language, that word also means ‘nearer’, it’ a homonym, so you could see a poet as literally someone who brings things, or people, closer together. A beautiful thought, but oddly, few poets stop to think about this purpose. Here in the Low Countries, poets mainly talk about form when they examine the meaning of the word dichter. The focus is on the fact that most poems are short, cut back, refined and sublimated pieces of text and they prefer to remain vague about the content. That’s up to the reader, because the poet doesn’t want to seem to be preaching. But there’s no denying it: the content, the meaning of a poem is automatically drawn into the vortex of the form, thereby transforming lots of separate things into one fluid whole.
So I suddenly feel intrigued by the tension between the freedom that poetry offers and the urge to set poems down, the playing with words versus the chiselling of them. I suddenly regret that some sentences have to be cast in bronze, that some writers are so eager to see their verses immortalized. The aplomb required for that is often stifling. I’ve come to think: just leave it that way. Let everyone write their own rules, their own lines. Poetry, like peace, is a dynamic thing. It exists only when it’s continually reaffirmed and lived, not when it’s brought to ignorant people by a supposedly chosen one, like two tablets of stone. In short, both peace and poetry exist only when they’re not presented as lines that a red ballpoint can be used on but lines that dance, roll and flow, and slip through your fingers like sand if you squeeze them too hard.
I stand in front of the class and ask the children to describe the things in the classroom on Post-it notes. The table is as smooth as...? And the wall as white as...? And the curtains as long as...? Before the children know what’s happening, they’re sitting on an ice rink amid snow-covered mountains with giraffes wandering about. No classroom is the same after I’ve visited it. I know the trick now. It happens again every time I hand out the Post-its. But this time in Laarne, a village near Ghent, I was completely surprised when an eleven-year-old boy stuck his Post-it to the light switch. I read, a lightbulb is light with a skin around it. I was amazed. Moved. I’d expected something like, the light is the sun, but this boy looked at things just that bit more carefully. He had focus. A refreshing and affectionate view of things. That’s something from which poetry, and indeed peace, benefits enormously.