Poetry for Beginners by Kathryn Simmons

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BBC Radio 4, 10 July 2009
While I was at school we had an English teacher who asked us to write our own poems about familiar subjects - the seasons, school or our families. At first we faithfully carried out his instructions by producing short pieces of doggerel with familiar moon/June rhymes. Eventually we tired of this somewhat mundane task and copied out old poems from books, which we presented as our own work. One of my classmates used the 1950s rock 'n roll song "Real Leather Jacket:" our teacher was so pleased with these efforts that he immediately had the piece reprinted in the school magazine. I plagiarized a poem called "Last Words Before Winter," which was equally enthusiastically received.
Such reminiscences sprung to mind as I listened to Poetry for Beginners. Set in a country retreat somewhere in Shropshire, it concerns two poets who act as tutors in a week-long course designed for aspiring writers. Celia (Joanna Tope) is an old hand at the game, having spent much of her career publishing exquisitely crafted verse with particular attention paid to meter and scansion. Fran (Emma Currie) is a much younger poet who has no truck with such elaborate methids; instead she favours a performance-based approach based on role-play and group participation. In her view poetry should be written in everyday English, the language of the streets, in order to maintain its relevance to readers.
The workshop participants are a motley crew, including retired teacher William (Crawford Logan), who has spent so many years talking about literature to his students that he is bereft of any imaginative sympathy. Moira (Ann Scott Jones) is an housewifely type, knowing nothing about poetry but glad of the excuse to escape from home and family, while Nick (Nick Farr) claims that he wants to become a full-time writer.
As the action unfolds, however, nothing is quite what it seems. Celia turns out to be an alcoholic, completely lacking in self-esteem, turning to poetry as a way of compensating for her lowly upbringing on a South London council estate. Fran, the ostensible social revel, is in a reality a nice middle-class girl from Guildford, adopting a specific pose in an attempt to attract media attention. Nick proves to be nothing more than a Lothario, more preoccupied with bodily rather than emotional satisfaction.
And yet out of adversity a peculiar bond emerges: Celia and Fran discover an unexpectedly common ground, which inspires them to continue their chosen profession. They might have established their reputation on lies, but at least they could go forward in the belief that they had acquired a certain degree of self-knowledge. The play was directed by David Jackson Young.

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