From agh to ah: reading old poems with old footballers

Oriental Poppy, front garden, 30 June

Yesterday I started a reading of Tennyson’s great poem for those who won’t give up, ‘Ulysses’. I’ll continue that reading today. Find the  whole poem here.

I have been meeting with some of our volunteer Reader Leaders to learn how our new volunteer-led model is working, to hear what needs fixing, to understand what’s working. A really good morning yesterday  meeting Reader Leaders from across the North West – including  Crewe, Middlewich, Bootle, Knowsley Liverpool and Wirral. The  key problem is reading material – how to choose, and  how to get hold of it.  We have a  selection online on our membership site but people need more.  The Reader is planning a series of anthologies over the coming years, and think it would be great to get them into every pubic library… but that is a huge project, so  for now,  please hold on! There are loads of poems that are out of copyright. If you are looking online,  the wonderful Poetry Foundation is a great place to start.

I’ve written a number of posts here with ‘What to read in a Shared Reading group’ in the title – maybe something worth you reading there. But they are not all poems!

In The Reader magazine, you’ll find a brilliant section called ‘The Old Poem’  where my old University tutor, Mr Brian Nellist, chooses and old poem and writes a little about it.  That might be a good place to start. As a Reader Leader, or anyone who has done our Read to Lead training course,  you should receive the mag free for the first year after your training – if you haven’t had it, please let our membership man know!

People can be nervous about introducing old poems to groups of people who have not been readers. I can understand that because I’ve run hundreds of such groups myself. I know that nervous feeling when your three or four first punters trickle into the room and you think… agh… this is not  going to work.  And then, to quote James Baldwin, you read.  And once you start to read the thing one of our Reader Leader’s called ‘the alchemy’ begins to happen. Agh to ah in an hour and a half.

The key to getting from ‘agh’ to ‘ah’ is the trust and confidence of the Reader Leader.  How do you develop trust and confidence?  Controlled experiments in trying have always worked for me, and I’d recommend that method.


But let’s assume you’ve chosen an old poem – let’s say it’s Tennyson’s  ‘Ulysses’ –  and you want to try the controlled experiment of taking it to an open community group… you need to do some work on it yourself before you go, because the main ingredient in encouraging your group enjoy it is you and your enthusiasm. So get into it!

It’s really important to make the poem alive to yourself and your group members – it can’t be, must not be,  an old dead thing that’s too fancy and hard to understand.  Look for good things, look for things that will spark conversation, or that people will recognise as human experience.  Whatever our clothes, class, or classroom experience, in human, emotional terms our lives are very similar.  No one wants to feel redundant. That’s what ‘Ulysses’ feels and fights against. I started here, and am picking up at ‘I am become a name’ ;

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

When he says ‘I am a become a name’ he means ‘I’m famous’. This is a point where, say, working in an addiction unit with three older men in recovery from serious, life threatening addictions, I would try to  relate the poem to recognisable contemporary characters. Mentioning David Beckham anywhere in Liverpool will raise hoots of derision, so that might be a good ice-breaker –  David Beckham is a ‘name’ and  if he doesn’t have football to be seen to be good at, what is he? Sells undies, doesnt he? one of the men will say. Scent, innit?

Ok – let’s be serious, I’ll say. what about Stevie G?  He’s not a brand man like Beckham – his life, his name has been totally about football.  How is he going to  be himself without it? What’s he going to do?

We’ll talk about Beckham or Steven Gerrard for awhile, and one of the men might speak about what happened when he was made redundant but at some point, I, or one of the men, will say, let’s get back on with the poem. Back to the text. And  at the point, we’ll  go back to thinking about Ulysses.

We’ll go back with our minds primed with models we know. We’ll be more ready to think about Ulysses predicament. We’ll read ‘for always roaming with a hungry heart’ and I hope someone in the group will know the Bruce Springsteen song, because that too will give us a connection. We might even sing it! But then we will go back – again –  to the poem.

What’s the mantra: back to the text!

Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

Here’s Ulysses remembering  his life as a professional ( we think of Steven Gerrard and his shirts and trophies…) Ulysses ‘job’ was explorer, statesman, soldier…and in all these roles, he was the best, ‘honour’d of them all’.  Everyone will know someone who was ‘honour’d of them all’,  really good at whatever it was they did,  the master craftsman who teased you in your apprenticeship  but could paint a Georgian window frame steady-handed, the calm and fearless boss of the fire-fighters crew, Tommy the union man at Lime Street.  To make the old poem real we have to be able to connect it to real lives, to real experience.  Only later, when people do this automatically, can we try to do more abstract literary reading (but I never want to do that myself, I like staying in the every day reality).

What’s hard  is constantly  making the connection to ordinary reality and to complex language. Here, in these lines, I’d be concentrating on the music, the rhythm of Ulysses’ voice. I’d be getting my three men to pretend to be  great Greek warriors heavy in bronze armour and  saying these lines. Read them aloud!

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Next bit is brilliant, but out of time for today… what a pity!



4 thoughts on “From agh to ah: reading old poems with old footballers

  1. helenwillowsblog June 30, 2017 / 2:07 pm

    Can’t wait for tomorrow ( hopefully that’s when we’ll get the next bit of Ulysses)…
    I’ve just been away for three weeks and missed your blogs ( busy writing mine – what an interesting process). Catching up on the train home from Inverness was a wonderful master class in shared reading. Thank you so much. Great literature, great thoughts, great help.

  2. loubyjo July 1, 2017 / 7:54 pm

    uumm i wld be wary of talking football footballers in a grp as once starts it wont stop and people will switch off not being a bitter blue but few times people switch off . saying that one footballer does fit into this and even if not a grain of interest in the sport it is Georgie best he had it all a nd what happened all went and fell apart his margin fades not sure what happens next but if u are going to have a footballer having best of gary speed wld provide more discussion !!!!

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