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Sonnet Hating

Sonnet Hating 
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
You wince at all things metaphorical;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May --
Just like they shook it into you at school.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
Too many iambs make you lose your cool,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
While you decline all rhyme and metric rule.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade --
The heat of your disdain is turned up full;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade --
For you, that's too anthropomorphical.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
You will remain averse to poetry. 
(Sorry Will).
No time for rhyme? Averse to verse? Incensed by cadence? I feel patronisingly sorry for you, but you're not alone. Especially not if recent poetry sales are anything to go by -- according to a Guardian article earlier this year, the total value of the market has dropped from £8.4m in 2009 to just £6.7m in 2012 -- a massive 20% decline in just three years. (Of course, as a follow up article was quick to point out, commercial viability isn't everything).

I'm increasingly impatient with those who are persistently indifferent to poetry. Which is painfully hypocritical, because I more-or-less shared that indifference till recently. Well...I quite liked it in school, and I'd read the odd bit here and there, and I was pretentious enough to like the idea of being 'into' it ... but Mr. W kept on at me about how it was better than fiction, and to be honest, in practice, I wasn't quite sold. Whenever I sat down to read I would generally reach for a novel. And then at some point something clicked -- perhaps Mr. W's insistence wore me down; perhaps my decreasing attention span demanded denser, richer intake; perhaps I just hit a tipping point where I'd read and mulled enough to start to 'get' it. All of a sudden, what once was 'interesting' and 'hmmm' to me became 'compelling' and 'whoa'.

I suspect that one reason for the usually-niche appeal of poetry is the quick-fix nature of most popular culture. Entertainment is instantaneous -- and multi-sensory. A keyboard or remote control at the finger tips can open up a superfluity of crowd-pleasingly emotive or hilarious or tense or celeb-studded or shocking or 'real' or intriguing material, perfectly pitched to connect with wide audiences. Of course, the ability to achieve broad appeal and immediate accessibility is powerfully impressive, however much The Critics love to dismiss all things popular as low-brow. [1]

But worthwhile or important knowledge and experience are not always easy, and if we never look or think beyond what comes most naturally to us we are in danger of missing out on richer, deeper truths and maybe even joys (as well as bigger, more significant, possibly extremely painful human matters -- but that is a topic for another time).

I'm really loving my new love of poetry -- it sort of happened accidentally, and I'm glad it did. It has opened up new avenues of delight and insight [2], and new angles on processing the 'stuff' of life. But it wouldn't have happened at all if I hadn't been exposed to it over time, or if I hadn't engaged with it occasionally with an open mind.

Regular readers, if I had any, would know exactly what I was about to say next... "hey! it's a bit like that with the Bible". It isn't necessarily an easy read: it's long, and shocking in places, and it uses unfamiliar language, and some of it requires quite a lot of background cultural information before it starts to make sense. It is temptingly convenient to decide a priori that it isn't worth it -- "it's just a [insert dismissive negative generalisation here] book with little [insert presumed lacking positive characteristic here] to offer me right now".

Well, among those of us who have engaged with the Bible -- who have opened it and opened ourselves up to it -- are many who would give a different, far more positive account. And that is why people like me go on so, trying to get others to give it a chance for themselves. In a recent open letter to The Times the CEO of Bible Society expresses the organisation's commitment to encouraging people of all backgrounds to dare to go beyond a shrugged 'whatever' to the Bible:
When the Bible remains a closed book, people miss out – and ignorance grows, and that is always costly. Students miss out on perhaps the most formative text in our culture. Politicians miss out on a vital piece of evidence in understanding a multi-faith society. Churchgoers miss out on the source material that can keep their faith informed and their leaders held to account.
We work in both education and politics – and, yes, the church – to address this. We encourage people, regardless of background or belief, to explore the Bible for themselves, to become better informed, to get past the lazy prejudices, the cliched soundbites and gain the confidence to grapple with it for all it's worth. (James Catford, Group Chief Executive, Bible Society)
I hope and pray that they succeed in contributing to this process in many people's lives, with integrity and wisdom and transparency and engagingness. They have a tough audience. But they also have an amazing (oh dear, I'm trying desperately to avoid this word but...) 'product' -- "More to be desired are they [God's 'rules'] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb" (Psalm 19:10). But actually, if we who are so keen on it truly take it for what it seems to claim to be, we will realise that it's not for us to 'sell' the Bible by the usual persuasion or manipulation -- but to trust that God Himself will speak through it into the lives of those who give Him space to do so...
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

[1] I was listening to the first of Grayson Perry's Reith lectures the other day, and to illustrate the oft-times pretentiousness of the high-brow art world he had an hilarious anecdote about someone complaining of a magazine editor that "English wasn't her first language, so the magazine suffered from the wrong sort of unreadability"...!

[2] Including the super-fun pastime of reading out-loud -- we did Book I of Spenser's The Faerie Queene over a few evenings and car journeys, and lately started on Byron's Don Juan, which is very, very funny. Beats trawling through the list of films to rent in search of something we can both bear to sit through...