While studying English at sixth form, a teacher remarked how some poems were written with a specific kind of reader in mind.
I never got over just how limiting that idea can be.
At such a volatile and curious age, I wrestled with notions of race, class, and intelligence, believing I lacked the imaginative and academic facility to inhabit and explore poems in the way my more bookish peers could do.
To a seventeen-year-old, the teacher’s assertion implied I wasn’t to be included in the exchange between major poet and discerning reader. That certain references, constructions and allusions were outside my cultural remit. That somehow my world was vastly different, and I was destined to forever be looking in from the outside scratching my head, mumbling but what does it all mean?
To suggest certain poetries are better aligned with certain readers is to reinstate a conservative and violent rhetoric which assumes there is either a singular/correct way to navigate a poem, or that one must first be trained in knowing how to think about the mechanisms central to poetic logic.
The cultural critic and poet Matthew Arnold pronounced ‘true culture does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes but rather seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.’
Sure, having a learned framework can help steady the experience of reading poetry, but it shouldn’t supplant it. I believed the myth that certain types of poetry were outside my jurisdiction.
In later years I would profess to only writing poems for my working-class counterparts or other immigrant communities, as if I were in possession of some deeper esoteric knowledge relating to the makeup of their reading-minds. I harboured feelings of disaffection, that I was by way of race and class maladjusted to the cultural and intellectual coordinates of canonical British poetry, the avant-garde and other forms.
When teaching now, I purposefully present poetry which on first reading might be considered difficult, as I believe those poems to be the more generous and expansive.
In ‘trickier’ poems students and general readers have far more agency to wander, question, react and project onto the piece. Outcomes which seem less probable in poems where the intention is more apparent, or the reader is made to feel they’re being instructed or guided on how to think about the writing.
For me, poetry isn’t the problem, it’s the rules we assign to its reading and those who manage to accrue the means to reinforce atavistic orthodoxies. We all have a stake in language hence why we become so protective over it, grumbling, and kicking when we feel locked out or excluded from the conversation.
And yet we have sophisticated interpretive skills; we can quite easily intuit through the dark and point towards something greater, more profound and indefinite.
It’s the latter where poetry has wanted us to go. The question, which to my mind still looms large, is what are the barriers that prohibit us from doing so?
Anthony Anaxogoru is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. He is artistic director of Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night held at London’s Southbank Centre, and publisher of Out-Spoken Press. His forthcoming collection ‘Heritage Aesthetics’ will be published by Granta in 2022.
© Photo by Alessandro Furchino Capria