The first poems I recall being read to me were those of Edward Lear – The Jumbles, The Owl and the Pussycat and other nonsense poems. I was around four years old, staying overnight at my grandparents’ house. Being read to before bed felt like a major treat, because being the fifth of six children meant those night time rituals didn’t happen very often at home. I’m sure back then I didn’t follow all of what I heard, but I felt the tone and mood of the poems and remember being fascinated and a little scared of the Gorey illustrations. I also enjoyed listening to the lilt, inflections and changing rhythms of my grandfather’s voice as he read.
I have another early of memory of kneeling in church (I was brought up in a devout Catholic family), listening to the incantatory chants of The Latin Mass whilst leaning my head on the pew in front and sniffing the dark aroma of waxed and polished wood. The fact that I had no clue as to what was being spoken about felt almost liberating. I focussed on the music of the words alone and I enjoyed the differences I heard. That was also poetry, of sorts.
Ours was a relatively chaotic and impoverished upbringing, with few toys or treats, but it was full of books and talk of them. I was an avid, early reader and literature was my escape, my entertainment and comfort. Poetry was always part of that other world I entered. I particularly remember enjoying reading the children’s poems of Charles Causely, Ted Hughes and Christina Rossetti. And later on, Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids (which at the time of publication – early seventies – seemed very fresh and modern). My father was an Irish- born English teacher who lived and breathed literature. He would quote apposite lines from poems across the dinner table to prove a point he was making, he’d named one family cat Skimbleshanks after T.S. Eliot’s Book of Cats and the other, Kinsella after the poet Thomas Kinsella. Once, aged around nine, I’d complained to him of the usual summer holiday boredom. So he sourced the Witches’ Speech (Macbeth) and challenged me and my older sister to learn it. Amazingly, we did. It was that sort of household.
I don’t recall studying poetry at primary school although I do remember enjoying the ground-breaking and eclectic educational series of poetry anthologies called Junior Voices and the older, Voices that were published in the 1970’s.
I wrote some poetry as a child too, though only remember doing so at home. I was an enthusiastic writer and had a natural ear for rhythm and rhyme though I never showed my efforts to anyone. It didn’t occur to me to do so, partly because I was writing for my own amusement.
I stopped reading and writing poetry in my early teens. It became just something I studied at school – another subject to get a good mark in. Later, in my teens and early twenties, I subverted my love of words into listening to song lyrics; Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Love. I went on to become a special needs teacher and I raised my family. Though I continued to read literature, I didn’t pick up a poetry book or write until I was entering my forties, when life became tricky and I instinctively reached out for what felt most familiar and necessary. That proved to be poetry. Once I had rediscovered poetry, it became all-consuming. Five years later, I published my first collection The Language of Cat.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I would have continued to explore poetry through my teens and beyond if I’d been given the opportunities and encouragement to share and develop my writing. What I do know, though, is that the early drip-drip exposure to poetry and its word power lay the essential foundations that made me the poet that I eventually became.
Rachel Rooney is an award winning poet. Her poetry collections include The Language of Cat (which you can buy here) and My Life as a Goldfish (click here). Rachel will be performing at King’s Hall Ilkely on 3rd October with The Children’s Bookshow in a lively and interactive event where she will also talk about what poetry is, how it makes us feel and where the ideas for poems come from.
For more information about Rachel see http://www.rachelrooneypoet.com or find her on twitter @RooneyRachel
Photo credit: Michael Thorn