Up until yesterday, I was only reading Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Billy Bryson. Up until the point I stopped kidding myself that I would finish it for today. Given the fact that I’ve fallen asleep reading it every night since I started it, it was never going to happen. But, as we know by now, I’m pretty delusional when it comes to my reading goals. So it took a while for me to admit defeat. Stubbornness can be useful in certain situations but sometimes it can make life difficult. Like forcing me to find a quick read to finish in one night. Normally, that would involve me buying a super small book during my lunch break. But, as I’m still trying (and failing) to stick to my book buying ban, I decided that this time I would go back to one of the books on my shelf that I have already loved but never reviewed. A collection of poems, in fact, that I’ve owned for years and adored. I loved it so much that I’ve gifted it to a few friends and I’m the kind of person that doesn’t normally force my bookish loves on my unsuspecting friends.
Anyone who has read a few of my book related posts may know that I have a rocky history with YA fiction and I’m not entirely convinced by contemporary poetry. So you’d think that I’d definitely want to steer clear of a piece of YA fiction written entirely in verse. But Long Way Down is the kind of book that I couldn’t ignore for long. Loads of people I respect on Bookstagram loved it and I heard loads of praise for it in general. So, when To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before proved too much for me to handle, I decided it was time to give it a try. After all, it’s not a very long read so I knew I could blast through it in a matter of hours. And I am still trying, though not very hard, to read more poetry this year. It feels like a novel written in verse is the ideal way of doing this as I sometimes find it difficult to get into poetry. It’s not exactly a normal method of reading when you’ve got a collection of poems loosely tied together by a similar theme but that are all separate. As this one contained such a tight and concise narrative, I was excited to see how it would work.
Poetry. It’s something I love but don’t often read these days. I blather on and on about my university days when I read Romantic poetry all the frigging time but I’m 30 now. As much as I don’t want to admit it, it’s been a while since I finished my degree and I’ve kind of lost my way with poetry. So, I’m always trying to get back into it. Obviously, I have my favourite Romantic poets and have a certain fondness for the greats. I’m talking Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Eliot. TS Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock is one of my favourite ever works of poetry. It shared the top spot with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner but I’ve discussed this before. My issue is contemporary poetry. I guess the closest I get to really loving contemporary poetry is the work of First World War poets. So, you know, not at all. It’s not that I hate it; I just don’t have the same love for it. So, recently I’ve been trying to push myself to read more. It was this quest that lead me to pick up Rupi Kaur’s collection Milk and Honey and Amanda Lovelace’s the princess saves herself in this one. Both collections were ones I’d seen praised all over social media and the internet as a whole. I expected to be blown away. I wasn’t.
I have always considered myself to be something of a poetry fan. After all, I spent as much time as possible at university studying the poetry of the Romantic period. I’m a massive fan of the work of Byron and Shelley. T.S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shares the title of my favourite poem along with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. If anyone were to ask me, I’d confidently say that I was a poetry buff. However, the more I think about it the more I realise that this isn’t exactly true. Or, at least, not anymore. As anyone who reads my weekly rundowns will know, I’m not exactly great at reading novels let alone anything else. Every so often I will become a bit too self-aware and realise my inadequacies as a reader. Last year I decided I needed to read more non-fiction so bought some interesting books. I still haven’t read them. Every time the Man Booker International lists comes out I feel a pang of guilt for not reading enough foreign literature so I buy a few of the books or add them to my Amazon cart and promptly ignore them forever. I have so many books to read that it just becomes struggle to fit it all in. But poetry is something I figure I can embrace again and still manage to keep going with my normal reading. After all, a few poems here and there aren’t going to distract me too much. And there’s a whole world of contemporary poetry just waiting for me to explore. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Dear John Donne,
What happened to you, man? You used to be the man. I mean you once tried to convince a woman to sleep with you using a fucking flea. You were one of the original players, dude. Legendary. The fact that, whilst we studied you at the age of 16, my elderly English teacher had to explain the “sucking on country pleasures” pun to one of my clueless and naive classmates just makes me love you more. There’s nothing funnier than a woman nearing, if not having surpassed, retirement age trying so hard not to say the word “cunt” to her A Level class but being unable to explain it in any other way. It’s one of my favourite school memories. I kind of adored her anyway but that really settled it.
So, yeah. I had a lot of fun reading your poetry at 16. It was hilarious. Also, it’s not as if they’re bad poems. I actually really like them. I’d started to get more into poetry by that point anyway (it was after my first day with the Ancient Mariner) but you were accessible and different. Pretty clever stuff. But, it was your way with the ladies that really captivated my friends and I. We thought you were great. I mean talk about using your powers for evil, John. I know poetry has always been used in the pursuit of romance but you skipped the love hearts and got straight into the bedroom. You were the ultimate bro. You were a legend.
Well, until my further education introduced me to the yawn fest that is your later work. And I get it. You always struggled with your religion but don’t worry about it. Don’t turn your back on the man you once were. I’m sure God would have appreciated your resourcefulness. Using your talents. Your God-given talents. Of course, I have nothing against these poems from a literary point of view. They’re good. They’re just not fun. And I always associated you with fun. It’s like watching comic actors/comedians doing serious acting roles. It’s not necessarily bad but it’s always a little bit disappointing.
You’re like Eddie Izzard. I love Eddie Izzard and think he’s one of the funniest people ever. His comedy is bizarre but so hilarious. Nowadays, you only ever see Eddie popping up talking about politics. In theory I have no problem with this and think he talks a lot of sense. However, I still kind of wish he was still talking about cake or death. Or like Michael Sheen. I have huge love for Michael Sheen and think he’s one of the greatest actors ever. So, it’s always a bit of upsetting to see him on TV talking about how Port Talbot and not pretending to be Tony Blair. Not bad but upsetting.
You see what I’m saying? No? Here’s one more stupid, pop culture analogy for you. You’re like Kings of Leon. I think Youth and Young Manhood, they’re very first album, is one of the greatest all-round albums I’ve ever heard and I, personally, don’t think any of their subsequent stuff has ever lived up. I’ve enjoyed a few songs here and there but have never been able to listen to full albums in one sitting. So I, basically, just listen to their early stuff. Just as I, basically, just enjoy your early poems. You see? Simple.
I’m glad I’ve finally taken the time to explain it to you. I feel like this letter will only bring us closer together.
More than kisses, letters mingle souls,
I don’t even know if I really do love your poetry. I love you as a person and your reputation so much that I can no longer distinguish between the two. You’re like the Sean Bean of Romantic poetry. I have such a great love for Sean Bean that I have no judgement over his films anymore. I can’t separate the awesome Northern badass for the awful characters he’s playing these days. Similarly, whenever I read your poems I just think of the rock star you once were and can’t tell if I actually like them. Chances are your poems are much more impressive than Sean Bean’s recent filmography but, hopefully, you get my point.
You see, I’m already getting flustered talking to you. I’m like all of those women who believed you were writing love poetry to them. You were the first rock star poet, man. You were like Tom Jones. Did women throw their underwear at you too? Did you appear someone to read your poetry and loads of horny women would just throw their undergarments at you? They did faint in your presence after all. You turned all of your female fans into the heroine of a gothic novel. How could I not love you? I’d probably have been one of them.
But I do, also, appreciate your poetry. Although, you are responsible for one of the most embarrassing moments in my university career. During my third year I took a half-course on you and Shelley. I was excited. I already loved you and I took the chance to do anything linked to Romanticsm. In one of our seminars we were tasked to analyse small sections of the poem Don Juan. My friend and I were given Dudù’s dream sequence, which pre-seminar I had only skimmed over. It took us both a ridiculously long time to understand what was going on. Our tutor thought we were both idiots and I felt so naive. Still, we got there in the end.
I’m not stupid enough to believe that you are the best poet to come out of the Romantic period but I believe that you, more than the others, really sum up what it meant to be a poet of that era. You rejected so many social norms and did what you wanted. You embraced your celebrity, you wanted a fun and exciting life, and you were an artist in your own way. More than anything, you’re fun. I mean, what would vampire fiction have been without you? John Polidori based the first ever true fictional vampire on you. You’re the reason we have Dracula, dude. You’re quite a guy. I’ve never felt the same way reading the poets of Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth as I do reading yours. You may not be the greatest but you’re the most entertaining. And the one that caused the biggest stir. Nowadays, women may be more likely to swoon over pretty-boy Keats. If we’re talking about the real Romantic pinup then, in my heart I know, it’s you.
There is no instinct like that of the heart,
Dear William Shakespeare,
I think the first time I can remember studying you in any depth was in year 8. So I would have been about 12/13 years old if my maths is any good. We were focusing on Macbeth and, in particular, the witches speech. We had to come up with our own version or something. I’m not entirely sure what the point of studying you at that time was but I was definitely drawn in by the whole witch and magic vibe that you were giving off. So, you could say, I’ve loved you from the beginning. And it’s a love that has continued with every new play I have discovered and with every play that I have revisited. With every sonnet I’ve analysed. With every play I’ve watched or film adaptation I’ve seen. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare it to Romeo and Juliet’s because we all know how stupid that whole relationship was but I’d happily compare it to Nerissa and Gratiano (one of the most underappreciated but most adorable romances in your plays).
And I could go on and on about why I loved you and what you mean to me. I could tell you which my favourite plays are. Question why I still find myself having to reassure people who you aren’t too difficult or the language is too hard to understand. I could thank you for the many ways in which you’ve changed our language or our culture. How you’ve remained relevant for such a long time and remain one of the key figures in English literature. I could revisit some of the times I’ve watched you on stage. Name drop Michael Sheen again and talk about how great an experience it was to watch him play Hamlet on stage. How watching Tom Hiddleston play Coriolanus whilst sitting next to a non-Shakespearean friend was both an uplifting and totally anxiety-filled experience. I could go on and on about how wonderful you are. But I won’t.
Instead, because I might not get this chance again, I want to ask you a question. What’s with all the cross-dressing, dude? I mean, was it really that funny to have so many of your characters dress up in someone else’s clothes and be mistaken for someone else? Was it really worth the cheap laughs to have The Merchant of Venice end on a pointless case of women dressing as men again? It undervalues the rest of the narrative to have that scene at the end where the two women trick their new husbands into giving them their rings. I was with you when Portia was using the disguise to school a bunch of men even if it does raise some questions. It was still a power move. But then the thing about the rings? Unnecessary. Portia is one of the most irritating women in you plays and it’s because she plays that stupid game. And don’t even get me started on Rosalind.
Was the taste in humour so unsophisticated in your day that all it took was one women to dress up as a man to create the best comedy of all time? Imagine what your audiences would have though of Mrs Brown’s Boys. They’d bloody love it. But I’m happy that you found something that worked for you. And, maybe, you were making some bold statement about gender and women. Maybe you were allowing these women to take a significant part in their stories that they would have been unable to do dressed as a man. Maybe. Or maybe it was simply to give the poor young man pretending to be Portia a chance to play a boy for once? Either way. I’m worried about you, man.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
This is a difficult letter to write. It’s always hard to reach out to a past love without it being weird. Because I did love you once. Or at least I think I did. I, at least, felt like I should. You were so important a figure. So distinguished. So loved. It was like I didn’t have a choice but to love you. Especially because I’d already decided that my future lay, at least in terms of my education, in the realm of Romanticism. If you want to study this period it’s kind of impossible to ignore you. We all know you were like the father of the whole movement. Plus, I went to a university in Lancashire, near your beloved Lake District, so they properly loved you.
So I tried. I played the part. And I did love some of your poems. Tintern Abbey is a wonderful piece of prose and the first book of The Prelude is a fabulous thing to read. I don’t think you are terrible, by any means, but I can’t say that I was as enamoured as I felt I should be. I don’t wish to sound rude but there are better poets out there. Obviously there are worse (not mentioning any names *cough* Keats) but it’s not like you were that special. I kept thinking “maybe I’m just not getting it” or “maybe it’s just too clever for me”. I started to doubt myself and just forced myself to like you more. I got deeper and deeper until I genuinely didn’t know what to believe anymore. But, really, I think you’re okay.
Have you ever heard the song ‘If I didn’t have you’ by Tim Minchin? I don’t see why you would have considering you died in 1850 but go with me for a second. In that song, the comedian postulates that if he hadn’t met his wife when he did then he’s probably just have fallen in love with someone else. It’s a great song, worth a listen if you ever feel like it. But, my point is, if I hadn’t ever read any of your poems then I don’t feel as though my life would be missing something. Basically, if I didn’t have you then some other poet would do. And even you have to admit that in between all of your big hitters there are a lot of duds. Coleridge knew it. Hazlitt knew it. You must have known it. Surely just because ‘I wandered lonely’ has stood the test of time doesn’t mean we can forgive all of your boring political shit later in life? Right?
But maybe this isn’t a fair assessment. I think it’s safe to say we have a pretty messy break-up so it might be clouding my judgement. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the greatest idea to write my undergraduate dissertation on a poet that I wasn’t sure I liked but that was the choice I made. For months I studied your poems, your diaries, and you letters. I knew you so well it meant there were very few surprises left. Our relationship started to go stale. By the end, we were like the married couple in ‘Brothers on a Hotel Bed’ by Death Cab For Cutie. Saying goodbye from our own separate sides. We spent too much time together. Stopped appreciating each other. We only stayed together for the essay. Once it grew up and moved out of the house we had nothing left keeping us together.
So, that’s why I haven’t really been in touch with you lately. I went through a period of saying hurtful things about you to make myself feel better. It wasn’t the most mature thing I’ve ever done but it made me feel better. And I learnt my lesson. Everything I wrote about in my postgraduate dissertation is still something I love. I ended up finding something good. So I hope you have too. One day, maybe, we can be friends again. After all, we went through so much together that it feels like such a shame to waste it. We’ll see.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
Dear The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
Picture the scene: September 2010, a 22 year-old me is at an English department meet and greet before starting my Postgraduate degree and I’m stuck talking to my strange new Professor. It’s all as awkward as you’d hope until he asks me one simple question: “why did you chose to study the Romantic period?” Well?
It was an Ancient Mariner,
And he really spoke to me.
With his long grey beard and glittering eye,
He changed the life of me.
I’ve decided it’s better that I don’t continue the rest of this letter by butchering Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sensational words but, hopefully, you get the point. The reason I was so desperate to study Romanticism was you.
It was during my A Level studies that I was first introduced to you and it really did change my life. I’d read and kind of enjoyed poetry before but it was all rather pedestrian. It was poetry that seemed as though it was meant to be studied but not enjoyed, if that makes sense. I didn’t hate poetry, by any means, but I still hadn’t been brought around to the idea that one could really enjoy consuming it. Until we studied the epic tale of a crazy old sailor. I was genuinely amazed by what I was reading. I didn’t know poetry could excite me so much.
This was a new world and I was obsessed. I loved every line. I loved every rhyme. I loved every time … I read you. You were the first poem that I read so often I was able to learn you off by heart. And I’m not just talking about your first two stanzas. I knew loads. Not all of you, because you’re quite long, but I still think it was pretty impressive. I’m sure even Coleridge needed to be reminded of the later stanzas too. You were the first poem to convince me I could, and should, read poetry outside of the classroom. I admit, being about 15/16 at the time, it was a little depressing that it took me so long but I was never very by sonnets.
You were so much more than the poems we’d studied previously. You were archaic but new. You were gothic and scary yet reassuring and joyful. Expertly mixing the supernatural with the natural. You were everything that early Romanticism stood for and I wanted more. Just like your titular mariner, you hypnotised me. Your words opened my eyes to a new world of prose. Your simple structure and metre only complimented the complexity within your story. The dramatic tale and the ever-moving narrative would always draw me in. Still always draws me in.
I admit that, as the years go by, I can see all the faults that Coleridge saw. The moral is a little hammy and the archaic language is a bit much. Turns out you aren’t as perfect as my naive teenage self once thought you were. But. I still love you. I always will. You changed the whole trajectory of my life. I went to university and studied as much of this era as I could. You pushed me further towards gothic fiction. Everything I achieved during my four years of higher education can be traced back to you. You inspired me. You made me.