Young poet

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Mimi Khalvati looks ahead to her term as our guest poet

I first fell in love with poetry through Strawberry. Strawberry was our English teacher at school - Aubrey de Selincourt, a lovely man with a wonderful trembly voice. His idea of teaching poetry was to take us out on the Downs - this was on the Isle of Wight - where we would lie on the grass, gazing up at the clouds, while he read to us and we listened, like listening to nearby water.

Before that, when I was much younger, I took part in poetry recital competitions. Reading the same set poems as others, we had to hunt for the telling nuance, the subtle inflection and rhythm that would carry the day. To do that, of course, meant reading the poem more fully than we realised, letting it enter the mind and blood until it became our own voice, telling it in our own words.

Writing a poem as naturally as listening to water, in our very own voice and words, is harder. It's hard to hear ourselves think, hard to listen to what the poem wants us to say. We get in the way of it. We make it say what we think sounds good, steer it in all the wrong directions. Sometimes, when we're not attending, it comes to us and whispers something: a line, a whole poem if we're lucky, and that's when we're blessed.

Other times, we hear nothing and we wait - as long as it takes. Or we write something, anything, knowing words bring other words in their wake. Sometimes a poem is shy and needs to dawdle at the back door before it announces itself. Then all we need to do is to re-read what we've written and ask: when does the poem begin to speak? Underneath all the babble, what sounds more truthful, urgent, than what I know for myself? Then we let the poem lead us, like a child leading an adult, to discover something new about our world.

Poems that sound like they came to us of their own accord - even though they may have taken a lot of hard work - are remarkable in the literal sense. They make us want to exclaim, like pointing to a tree dazzling in the sunshine - look, isn't that fabulous! They make us want to share the pleasure, the fun, the sheer unlikelihood. They make us want to ask, "How come, how did they do it?" Like my son asking, "Mum, how does the world work?" Mimi Khalvati is TES guest poet for the autumn term. She has published five collections of poetry, including her Selected Poems, published by Carcanet in 2001. A new book, The Chine, is due in January next year. She is the founder-director of The Poetry School in London. Please send poems, no longer than 20 lines, to Friday magazine, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Include the poet's name, age and address, the name of the submitting teacher and the school address. Or email: friday@tes.co.uk The TESBook of Young Poets (pound;9.99), a selection of poems from this column, can be ordered on 0145 617370. A set of posters costs pound;3.99

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