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Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2010

Poetry isn’t for engineers

The philosophical discussion about whether engineering has a poetical dimension is for another time – this essay is about whether an engineer can appreciate poetry and my answer is a resounding Yes!

I started my career as an engineer which I believe to be a noble profession though in academic circles it may be seen as the ‘other side of the sheets’ application of pure study called science. In my humble opinion knowledge is nothing if it cannot be used productively to improve our lives. And in a parallel line of thought poetry should do the same, in my life poetry has made a huge contribution to my understanding of humanity so it ranks with engineering as an honourable pursuit.

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The title of this short piece comes from an opinion expressed by a rather dull fellow student on my degree course on seeing a book of poetry on my shelf. That book was by Robert Graves and I can’t remember why I had it – it was one of the first hardback books I ever bought but how it came up on my radar I don’t know. I used to browse the bookshops of Manchester as a Saturday pursuit so it may have come from that – possibly informed by a Sunday Times Magazine article, it doesn’t matter but I read it avidly. I tried to absorb the dense verse and make sense of it and I made sufficient progress to develop an appetite for more.

I loved poetry at early school – some readings from anthologies introduced me to Cargoes by Masefield – great rhythms - and works by Robert Louis Stephenson and the inevitable Practical Cats of Old Possum but secondary education leaned towards science so poetry was left behind for reason and logic. But the threads must have remained and surfaced in my Graves purchase. It then took a teacher girlfriend to release the locked up interest and EE Cummings, Miroslav Holub & the Beat poets were on my reading list in my later years of engineering graduation. I discovered the Liverpool poets myself by going to a reading to see Roger McGough and later met the girl who was the subject of Holcombe poem by Adrian Henri – the small Penguin edition of the Liverpool poets – RM, AH & Brian Patten was well worn by the time I graduated. I even started to write material in the style of these heroes.

It was about this time that I bought a series of books called Voices which celebrated words in the wider context and embraced poetry in its broader sense, the books were aimed at school audiences but the depth was appealing to adults also. I still treasure those books today.

The Edge

The girlfriend link was also responsible for introducing me to the Gaelic cultures of  Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas and the world of words exploded. The emphasis on the sounds as the primary force of literature was immediately evident and I discovered that marvellous work ‘Under Milk Wood’ much of which I can repeat still. The deeper works of Dylan Thomas were explored avidly and I became a great fan of his work such that I now regard him as my favourite verse writer. White Giants Thigh, Do not Go gentle & Fern Hill were the oft read works by this writer. Another rising force in my sonic experience was jazz – Miles ruled and it was inevitable that I discovered the combination of Poetry & Jazz in concert though regrettably never did I see a live event.

I can’t move on from here without reference to Spike Milligan who was a great supporter of poetry & jazz and has contributed greatly to the world of verse. Though some of his work may seem naive it has a simplicity that cuts to the point in a very adult way – I love his sense of humour contrasted by his darker side which together are a formidable communications device.

In later years I tried to help my daughter with English A level homework on a poem by Sylvia Plath. Together we got a B for the essay. This experience  absorbed me and fascinated me with a resulting rejuvenation of interest in verse that lasts to this day.

Visits to Scotland and exposure to Scots music brought me in contact with Gaelic culture and in particular one of its great proponents - Sorley McLean. This was partly prompted by his appearance on a TV programme about the Munros where his passionate rendition of Mountain names invited me to investigate his main works. I do not speak the language but when hearing his delivery I certainly get his message.

So why this current interest in poetry? Well on Monday  I attended a book launch where poetry formed a major part of the event – MCGonagall, Burns & Lesley Duncan all contributed as writers or deliverers and it was a truly moving demonstration of the power of words. Then today my friend Peggy of the West Coast introduced me to ‘Invictus’ and reminded me of ‘If’ and confirmed for ever that Poetry is definitely for Engineers.

© Keith Ratcliffe

September 2010

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