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A Love Letter: in praise of poetry

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans


(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.

Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.

An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:


With sudden shock the prison-clock

  Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

  Of impotent despair,

Like the sound that frightened marshes hear

From a leper in his lair


(Oscar Wilde, 1898)

On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich


(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)

Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.

Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels


(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)

Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?


(Maya Angelou, 1978)

Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!

Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(Hollie McNish, 2013).

To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it

Selected Bibliography

Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)

Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple

Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)

[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).

[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours


Ignorance to curiosity

My name is Sean, I started  studying Criminology at the University of Northampton in 2012, graduating in July 2016.

I started University as a switched off young man. I was very much in tune with media and social attitudes as wearing them cost very little and seemed to reap gratification. Studying was always enjoyable as it sparked my brain in ways television and games, or at least my choices in such, didn’t. Appreciating the concept and the opportunity however was always lacking in my 18 year old self. Coming to University and experiencing the electricity of passion mixed with contempt was very perplexing time. Not for long had I decided to think freely or passionately; choosing to study Criminology was a start. Meeting peers and idols of simultaneous do-good and work little nature, was an intense influence. Gratification ultimately came from within and this was the basis to which I began to restructure myself.

Personally, the highest credit should be placed with my course leaders and the content provided. Never in an academical setting  had I experienced someone ask me so many questions, yet rather than make me feel stupid; made me feel unprepared. Rather than build themselves up to be superior and towering; made them feel wise and welcoming. It was this, paired with the already enticingly dark yet morally complex content of Criminology that lead to me to free many barriers and much ignorance. This is when the real questions followed and the search for real answers began. Never before had I truly questioned what I had read, seen, heard, even felt or experienced and wholly  questioned myself.

This change truly opened a new way of living for me. I am fully aware that such reasoning and ways of thinking could been explored previously, however it was my ignorance and choices, rebellion and ego,  that locked these gates. In reference to the timeless ‘Nature vs Nurture’ topic; it was within my path that University, Criminology, @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou were to be the ones to trigger the break in the lock. Now, admittedly, this was not just an overnight spawning of a butterfly from a larva. I still, like many in life, held onto what was familiar with a tight grasp as for an ignorant; change is to admit defeat. Furthermore, to change, to really change, requires dedication and belief. But once logically thinking, questioning and reasoning, alongside giving in to pure curiosity; it is extremely hard not to follow the exciting direction within a moral compass.

From here I can genuinely say I have enjoyed life more and all of its experiences. I have appreciated people more, and taken much more time to try and understand exactly where they stand and come from. I have spent a long time questioning everything, looking for answers or options wherever I can, trying to better myself as a human and continuing to do so. I am honestly far from where I would like to ideally be, but I am truly proud of my experience and change. When I finished University I saw this as the end of my further education, and having worked full time for a few years I could feel my curiosity shift towards less academic interests and the passion begin to fade. However it was not long before a shift back began. This is where I came to a conclusion, which fills me with a happy heart when taken with a positive perspective, that we are all students; students of life. The stronger my curiosity is, the more passionately I will study. So thank you, Criminology Team, for igniting mine. I intend to try and share this passion wherever I go.

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