Culturally, poetry is used in varied ways. Haikus, for example, juxtapose images of the everyday, while lyric poetry expresses the personal and emotional. Similarly, poets themselves come in a range of guises. Think of the Romantic poet engaging with the sublime, the penniless artist in their garret, the high-brow don, the bard, the soldier on the frontline, the spoken word performer, the National Poet, the Poet Laureate or the Makar.
As an educator I sometimes encounter a fear of poetry in new students who have previously been put off by former teachers. Such teachers are, perhaps, intimidated by verse themselves, presenting it as a kind of algebra with an answer to be uncovered through some obscure metric code. This fear disperses, however, when students are given the confidence to interpret and engage with poetry on their own terms.
In creative writing classes we often talk about students needing to “find their own voice” and the best poems I read are written in the writers’ own particular voice, rather than in some inhabited “poetic” register. This is because poetry, for the writer and the reader, is about relevance.
Poetry is as relevant now as ever, whether you are a regular reader of it or not. Though chances are, at some point in your life, you will reach out to poetry. People look to poems, most often, at times of change. These can be happy or sad times, like birthdays, funerals or weddings. Poetry can provide clear expression of emotion at moments that are overwhelming and burdensome.
Markers of change
Poetry is also used to mark periods of change which are often celebrated through public events. In these instances the reading and writing of poetry can be transformative. At Remembrance Sunday, for example, verse is used to reflect upon and process the harsh realities of loss, as well as commemorate the military service of those who have passed.
In the wake of the shocking Manchester Arena bombing, Tony Walsh’s This is the Place gave the city a voice that was unifying, defiant and inspiring. It was important that Walsh is a Mancunian himself, just as David Jones fought in the trenches and at Mametz Wood which gives his In Parenthesis the weight of experience, while Holly McNish’s written experience in her book Nobody Told Me rings with the truth of a mother.
The communication of personal experiences like these in poetry, using direct and immediate terms, came to the fore with the early confessional poetry movement through poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Their use of the personal and private as the basis for their poems was once considered shocking but is now an embedded part of the contemporary poetry world.
That is not to say that poetry can only communicate direct experiences, however. Some poems are spaces in which broad questions are grappled with and answers sought. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest we are told death is a transformation rather than an end:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange
These comforting words can also be found on the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Rome.
Poetry is also used to explore the potential for change in the future, carrying with it the fears or hopes of the poet. Take Interim by Lola Ridge for example, a poem which holds particular relevance at this time. Ridge was a prominent activist and an advocate of the working classes. In Interim, change is yet to happen. We encounter the moment before change, the build up to change, the pause to take stock, consider and prepare for what is next. In it she anticipates a future movement or event. At a time of political uncertainty, as Brexit is being wrangled with, when opinions on all sides appear fragmented rather than unified, I find Ridge’s words a particular comfort. She describes the world as:
A great bird resting in its flight
Between the alleys of the stars.
This idea of the resting world is powerful. The world is waiting for its inhabitants to come to order perhaps, or to evolve even, before moving on to who knows where. But that is just me and my interpretation. Another reader will disagree and that is one of the most satisfying things about reading poetry. Your interpretation is yours alone and it can change the way you think or feel about something. It can help in times of challenge and it can bolster in periods of unease.
Today, poetry has never been more immediately accessible. With websites like The Poetry Archive and The Poetry Foundation one can summon a poem in the palm of one’s hand. Whether you are a regular reader of poetry or person who encounters it only at moments of change, there is no denying the ongoing relevance and power of it.