Help dispel the gloom – join the poetry boom!

Stormin’ Gorman: Amanda Gorman is America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. © CBS

If everyone read a poem a day, would there be no more wars? Amanda Gorman’s performances have brought millions of people together and provided inspiration in a time of global crisis.

Nothing like it had ever been seen at the Super Bowl. The game – one of the biggest sporting events in the world – had always been an ultra-macho affair, with the cream of hulking male American-football players crunching each other’s bones in the battle for the trophy. But this year, after Sunday’s game, the headlines were dominated by a fragile-looking young woman reading one of her own poems.

Amanda Gorman was hailed as a global sensation three weeks ago when she read her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration. For many, her confident, passionate performance was the day’s highlight, as she addressed the challenges facing her divided country. The 22-year-old’s Super Bowl poem, Chorus of the Captains, was once again greeted as a piece that captured the mood of the nation, celebrating ordinary people who have emerged as heroes during the pandemic.

But some believe that Gorman’s ground-breaking appearances have a wider significance. Another poet, Nikita Gill, argues that they proved once and for all that poetry is “a powerful, emotive medium capable of far-reaching change”.

During a crisis like the pandemic, Gill adds, “We long for a world that gives us something to hold onto, to anchor us. Poems give us the fuel that we so desperately need; they serve as sources of catharsis and hope, giving us the permission to feel deeply, and to feel together.”

Writing in The New Yorker, Clare Bucknell echoes this sentiment. This year, she notes, the US has seen a slew of anthologies with topical titles, ranging from Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration to Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic.

Anthologies are particularly appealing, she says, because they bring together a variety of voices that “capture what the present feels like and remind us that we’re not alone in what we’re going through”.

Bucknell quotes Ezra Pound’s slogan “Make it new” – meaning that writers have an obligation to be innovative. This dictum, she says, “looks all the more urgent at times when institutions seem on the verge of collapse”.

What is certain is that there has been a boom in poetry in the last decade. Between 2012 and 2018, profits from the sale of poetry books in Britain rose from £6.4m to £12.3m. Meanwhile, there was an explosion of verse on social media, with performances on YouTube by artists such as Kate Tempest and the emergence of Instapoets such as Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav and Nayyirah Waheed.

“The difference now is that things are more democratic,” says the slam poet Anthony Anaxagorou. “Anyone is free to set up a social media account or website and publish their poems.”

Not everyone applauds this development. Another poet, Rebecca Watts, has decried “the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”.

If everyone read a poem a day, would there be no more wars?

Pen versus sword

Some say yes. Poetry helps us look at the world with new eyes, understand other people’s feelings, and rise above the arguments that lead to war. In World War Two, the author and soldier Patrick Leigh Fermor bonded with a German general he had kidnapped on Crete when they found that they both knew one of Horace’s poems by heart. One poem a day would be enough to remind us of our shared humanity.

Others say no. They point out that poets are always arguing among themselves, and some poems actually incite warfare. Patrick Pearse encouraged rebellion in Ireland in 1916 with poems such as The Mother. John McCrae’s World War One poem In Flanders Fields exhorts its readers to “Take up our quarrel with the foe”. The 17th-Century poet Richard Lovelace celebrated soldiering in To Lucasta, Going to The Wars.

You Decide

  1. Which is your favourite poem, and why?
  2. The poet Geoffrey Hill declared that “accessible” was a word to be applied to supermarket shelves, not poetry. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write a poem for a major event such as the Super Bowl. Learn it by heart and make a video of yourself performing it.
  2. Write a critique of Amanda Gorman’s Chorus of the Captains.

Some People Say...

“Poetry… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

John Keats (1795 - 1821), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that war and warriors have inspired some of the world’s most important poems. The great classical epics The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid are all about the Trojan War and its aftermath. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf celebrates its eponymous hero; the 11th-Century French poem The Song of Roland and the 16th-Century Italian epic Jerusalem Delivered were hugely influential. But while they explored both the glory and tragedy of war, most modern poems focus on the tragedy.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how seriously to take Instapoetry and spoken-word poetry. Anthony Anaxagorou calls the latter “a highly communicative, informed, visceral way of connecting with people while also keeping them entertained”. Others argue that a polished performance can mask facile rhymes, monotonous rhythm, limited vocabulary and a general lack of imagination. Publisher Michael Schmidt complains of Instapoetry’s “privileging of cliché” and “intolerance of subtlety”.

Word Watch

Anthologies
Collections of work by various different writers. It derives from a Greek word for a flower.
Ezra Pound
An American poet (1885 – 1972) best known for his epic The Cantos. He was a leading Modernist, and TS Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to him.
Dictum
A saying or command. It comes from a Latin word meaning “to say”.
Decried
Denounce. It originally meant to shout someone down.
Cohort
Originally a unit in the Roman army, equal to one tenth of a legion; now generally used for a band of people.
Lauded
Praised. The noun “laud” can refer either to an early-morning prayer session or to a Spanish lute.
Denigration
Insulting or destroying the reputation of something or someone.
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC - 8 BC) was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.

Subjects

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