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Belfast father and son tell of how they use poetry to share their emotions

 

You would never associate John Keats with helping you to negotiate a hangover or Philip Larkin with advising against turning into a stalker - but a fresh new approach to classic poetry does just that.

In the hope of encouraging modern men to find happiness in reading the great classics, a Belfast father and son have just published what is the world's first "macho" self-improvement poetry book.

The Manly Book of Poems for Men: A Practical Guide to Life, Love and Flat-Pack Furniture Assembly from the World's Greatest Poets will be launched next month by retired English teacher David Craig and his son Stephen, a science writer.

The duo describe their book as "an irreverent, but educational, self-help book that explains and interprets the wisdom and joy of poetry for ordinary men".

In it they provide a light-hearted and modern take on a selection of classic poetry in an attempt to show how poetry relates to and can even enrich the reader's life.

Under the banner Wee Buns Books, the father-son writing partnership has grown out of a joint love for literature, helped by the fact that David recently retired from teaching and was looking for something new to fill his days.

David (67), who grew up in a working class family on the Donegall Road in Belfast, now lives in Holywood.

Married to Linda (67), a retired nurse, they also have a daughter, Sara (36), who is a teacher at Breda Academy, and two grandchildren, Max (8) and Isobel (5).

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David and Stephen Craig

David taught English Literature for 30 years in what was formerly Bangor Tech, now North Down College of Further Education.

It was his experience as a teacher, ever challenged to get young men interested in poetry, which led to the idea for the book.

Son Stephen was happy to help out by adding a modern twist with his sharp and funny interpretations of the poems.

David explains: "I taught English literature for a long time and in my classes I had young men aged 18 and upwards, most of whom saw poetry as elitist or as being girly.

"It was very difficult to get them interested in it and it just became more and more difficult each year.

"If you go into a bookshop the poetry section is usually two shelves at the back which no one goes near. My mission is to get it across to modern men that poetry is something they can enjoy and relate to.

"We have chosen 20 poems covering a range of themes such as religion, love, nature and so on. I explain the poems and then Stephen puts his manly twist on them in way that we hope will try and engage all men.

"To me, without poetry people are missing out on so much. I think poetry explains what it is like to be a human being and lets us all know we experience the world in the same way.

"Men don't talk to each other and tend to bottle stuff up and poetry is a way of sharing emotions."

Stephen (39), who lives in Belfast and works as a freelance medical science writer, is engaged to be married to Constance McGrath (36), a wedding make-up and special effects artist.

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He studied environmental biology at Queen's University and then completed a PhD in Animal Behaviour.

He taught in Belfast Metropolitan College after he graduated and then moved to Spain for several years where he taught biology.

While in Spain, he wrote a light-hearted column for a local newspaper and discovered he enjoyed writing more than teaching - which led him to start a blog on health and fitness under the pen name of Dr Mudskipper.

He returned to Northern Ireland and secured work as a specialist science medical writer, mostly for companies in the US.

Stephen says he feels blessed to have grown up surrounded by good books thanks to his father, although he admits to not always appreciating the literature.

"My dad would have told me that Shakespeare put food on our table and to me that meant he also put video games in my Sega," he says.

"Dad was always on hand with a poem but it was only when he retired and I was living in Spain that I really began to appreciate poetry and all it had to offer.

"Any time I was feeling lonely or uncertain about the future dad would email me a relevant poem, along with an easy-to-understand explanation of what it was all about.

"These explanations were a revelation to me; they transformed beautiful and bewildering poems into sound advice and gave me that warm fuzzy glow of feeling a bit smarter than most blokes who didn't read poetry.

"This is where we got the idea for the book and we decided to share them with all the 'manly men' out there who aren't 'fortunate' enough to have an English literary guru as a father.

"We have worked together to develop a humorous and practical 'manterpretation' of some of the world's greatest poems, so that they can motivate and inspire men everywhere to lead manly lives."

While their book is deliberately light-hearted, it stops short of poking fun at the poets or the poetry.

In fact, for David, who regards himself a rarity for loving literature, the poetry is almost sacred, the interpretation designed purely for easy reading and to make it relevant.

He says: "I am in that rare demographic of humanity that understands and loves poetry, yet is prepared to make fun of it in order to share its wisdom with a potentially hostile audience.

"We have developed a style for the book that treats Shakespeare and Co with a bit of manly banter, without losing the significance of their work.

"If we make a joke in the book, it isn't at the expense of the content.

"We respect the material as it should be respected. Shelley said poets are 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world', then this book aims to make them a bit more acknowledged by the people who think they are the real legislators... The Manly Men."

Father and son are conscious of the fact that mental health issues are important to young men and believe that poetry could help them to open up about their feelings.

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Family bonding: David Craig with wife Linda and Stephen with fiancee Connie McGrath

David grew up in the era of the stiff upper lip when men didn't show emotion and says it was the discovery of literature in his teens that changed his world.

"When I grew up we didn't have fridges or TVs or central heating and the toilet was outside," he says.

"When you look at all the advantages young people have now and which they take for granted there is such a big difference in a short period of time.

"However, what doesn't change is poetry and the reason why I'm passionate about it is that it has always been a constant for everyone.

"I definitely wouldn't have shown my emotions when I was younger but when I was 18 and doing my A-levels, I discovered Wordsworth and he literally opened my eyes to the world of emotion.

"It really was an eye opener and it made me engage with poetry very much." Thanks to his dad sharing his love of poetry, Stephen grew up in a different world where emotions didn't have to be kept under wraps and where poetry became a way of lifting the spirits.

He says: "When I grew up in the Eighties it was in the era when the alpha male was predominately a role model with the likes of He-Man and the Dukes of Hazard.

"I do think things are changing and you don't have to adhere to the football drinking stereotype anymore.

"I do feel that I can be open and talk about my feelings with my friends.

"We are very aware of the high suicide rates among young men and we hope that the book can lift them out of that sense that they are on their own and can't share things."

The book is available to buy from October 1 in both print and electronic form on Amazon.

David and Stephen are not expecting to make their fortunes from it. Their hope is that it will spread their love of poetry to the masses and help a whole new generation to appreciate the work of the classics.

Since retiring two years ago David has also written a number of short stories and plays for radio and has had interest from both Radio 4 and Radio Ulster.

He also enjoys rambling in the mountains and spending time with his family.

He adds: "I really hope the book motivates and inspires men - and not just men, women too will get a laugh out of it - to lead happier and healthier lives by engaging with poetry."

The Manly Book of Poems for Men is being officially launched in Garry's Barber Shop, 113 High Street, Holywood on October 5 from 7.30pm until 9pm. The book is available to pre-order now on amazon.co.uk

David and Stephen's manly take on famous poems

Ode on Melancholy by John Keats

Every now and then, even the manliest of men can slip into a rare bout of melancholy. We wrestle with difficult philosophical choices, such as the beer-versus-rock-hard-ab dichotomy and the mind-body problem, which can drag the unwary down into an existentialist funk. We like this poem because it offers advice on how to cope with sadness and stave off depression ... it's kind of like an early 19th Century version of Disney's Inside Out.

Send No Money by Philip Larkin

In the days before supermarkets invited us all to BOGOF (Buy One Get One free), 'Send no money!' or 'try before you buy' offers were used by advertisers to lure customers into buying a product they didn't need. The tactic worked because people couldn't be bothered to send the offending article back, rather than because they loved their new Soda Stream. In this poem, Philip Larkin describes a young man treating his life like a try before you buy product, rather than committing to all the joy and sadness of living. This poem is one of our favourites because it reminds us that life is too short to be a spectator and we should be throwing ourselves bravely into new projects and challenges even if we can't be sure of their success.

And in the Frosty Season... (Extract from The Prelude) by William Wordsworth

'And in the Frosty Season...' is an extract from The Prelude, an epic autobiographical poem and vanity project that Wordsworth (right) wrote in order to prove his greatness as a poet and philosopher. Wordsworth believed that poetry was the expression of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility. In this section of The Prelude, he puts this theory into practice to capture the powerful, emotional commune between Nature and Man and the feeling of 'Weeeeeeeeee!' you get when wheeling about on ice skates. We love getting into to nature and away from the tyranny of work and mobile phones. This poem does an excellent job of describing the existentialist joy that sneaks up on you when you spend time outdoors.

The Owl by Edward Thomas

Like most men, we like a good (and occasionally masochistic) physical challenge. Whether it be a mountain conquered, a marathon run, or a game of rugby played on a frozen pitch, we have all enjoyed that happy afterglow of physical exertion, when our aching bodies are rewarded with a well-earned rest and a few sneaky pints... maybe even a Mr Matey foam bath. We also like telling everybody about our endeavours. However, this poem by Teddy Thomas is great for putting our physical achievements and 'hardships' into context by contrasting them with those of people who know about real heroism and suffering. It warns us not to take ourselves nor our victories too seriously.

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