Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Of poetry and railways

If  you were a railway enthusiast you would know why finding this
on the front of your train would be exciting...
Despite having several friends who are poets (and very nice people they are too), I really don't get poetry. At least, I didn't until last Friday, when the light dawned during a village Christmas shindig.

There was a pre-Christmas evening of merrymaking in a nearby village hall, and with a number of others I had been asked to come along and help support the carol singing that would intersperse the important bits of drinking, eating, nattering and more drinking. What I, and quite a lot of the audience, didn't realise is that there were also going to be poems. Three poets, apparently connected to Swindon's successful Festival of Poetry came along to give renditions of their own and others' work.

I could help but observe the strange atmosphere in the hall during the poetry readings. It was, to be honest, a bit uncomfortable. People stared into space or at candles or generally looked as they had probably not looked since the English class at school many years before. And then it all changed. One of the poets read a funny poem. In an Irish accent. (Because he was Irish. A secondary observation is that poetry always sounds better in an Irish accent than in a UK one.) The audience came alive. They suddenly wanted to have eye contact with the reader. They smiled. They looked at each other. It was a different event altogether.
... but this wouldn't.
(At least not as exciting. But better than being in a DMU.)

And that's when the parallel between poetry lovers and railway enthusiasts struck me. I have some form in this respect. I was a railway enthusiast in my teens. In case you are thinking 'trainspotter,' it's not the same thing. I was indeed a trainspotter up to about the age of 13, but this was replaced by a sheer enthusiasm for trains and travelling by train, to the extent that, at age 15, with two other friends, I bought a week's 'railrover' ticket given access to all of Britain's railways. And we spent the week on the trains, only leaving the railway network four times during the period. (Our biggest excursion was to Land's End, for which we had to get a bus. Oh, the indignity.)

Now there was a clear gap between what we railway enthusiasts thought about trains, and what ordinary folk did. Ordinary folk could indeed enjoy a special case, like going on the Orient Express, or being pulled by a preserved steam locomotive. But they would never have understood why there was a difference between being pulled out of Paddington behind the stylish lines of a Western diesel hydraulic, and the lowest of the low, a diesel multiple unit. They would never have understood the visceral thrill of standing by a window up the front of a train on the East Coast Main Line, hearing - no, feeling - the roar of a Deltic in full flight.

And so it is with poetry. Most of us are steam train enjoyers and Orient Express dabblers when it comes to poetry, where steam trains are the rhythmic engaging classics like The Night Mail (yes, trains again) and the Orient Expresses of poetry are the funny ones. It is only the relative few, mostly I suspect poets themselves, who are really engaged by the wider concept. I found it interesting that our Irish poetry host kept saying that a poet he was introducing was 'Well respected in the poetry community', or 'known among the poetry fraternity' or some such remark. They too, like the railway enthusiasts, are a cadre, a group with a common interest not shared by the rest of us. And that's absolutely fine.

However, what it does mean, poets please note, is that you shouldn't be disappointed when we get all excited by Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah but fail to engage with your beautifully crafted stanzas on the plight of a mistle thrush that has lost an eye and can't, Janus-like, see the dawning new year from the ashes of the old.* We just can't all be railway enthusiasts either. Life is sad like that.

* If you have written such a poem, apologies - I was just picking random, poet-like feelings out of the ether.

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