‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo—criticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.’ - The Once and Future King, TH White
He’s right, of course. It’s a long quote because I love it – and poetic enough in its repetitions and structure to maybe count as a prose poem, if you believe in that sort of thing. And this week’s is a short prompt because it’s self-explanatory: what have you learned?
What did you learn at school, at university - was it any use? Then again, what did you learn during thirty years of working for the civil service, or ten years of domestic abuse? If you were to title your poem ‘Things X Taught Me’ then what is X – a dog, a river, Wigan Casino, alcohol, the Incredible Hulk? You might list the things you learned, like Kate Bingham – or make an oblique study of, for instance, The Way I Learned to Write.
Booby trap alert: beware sentimentality, pomposity, mawkishness, a Hallmark-card poem wistfully telling us that you have learned How To Be Kind or Not to Interfere. The solution: avoid abstracts ruthlessly – wisdom, pain, joy etc. Keep it concrete. Illustrate every lesson with the five senses. Resist the urge to say in those fatal last two lines – and so I learned that…. It should be clear by then.
And please, dear poets, don’t do ‘What I learned in 52′. Nothing so easy. We can do better; be brave or breezy, but make this one count.