‘Let me live, love, and say it well...’

Pithy Plath: “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed” — The Bell Jar.

Is poetry more vital than ever? A survey has declared Sylvia Plath the most popular poet of all time among teenagers — ahead of William Shakespeare. Meanwhile, poetry readership is surging.

March 1961. Sylvia Plath is recovering in hospital (she has just had her appendix removed). Somebody has sent her a bouquet of flowers, tulips. It is a kind gesture — but the bright, odorous flowers only make her feel worse.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. / Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe / Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby. / Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds. / They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down, / Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour, / A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Personal, candid and soaked with emotion: Plath’s Tulips is just one example of the confessional verse that won her reputation.

Her poems are dominated by themes of love, death and loss. The pages chronicle her tumultuous struggle with mental illness, and her tempestuous, doomed marriage to poet Ted Hughes. Ultimately, her life was a tragic one. She died by suicide at the age of 30.

But her legacy lives on. Yesterday, to mark National Poetry Day, she was voted the most-loved poet among people aged 11 to 17. Not only that, she is seen as a key inspiration for a new generation of writers.

In recent years, poetry readership has soared. In America, the number of readers has almost doubled since 2012. Why? Some point to the craze for “Instapoetry” — short confessional verses shared on social media.

Rupi Kaur is the most famous Instapoet. Dubbed “the Syliva Plath of Instagram”, her short verses have secured her three million followers and two bestselling books. “We need more love / not from men / but from ourselves / and each other”, reads a poem she recently posted titled Medicine.

The art is alive elsewhere too. Slam poets can spark viral sensations with their musical, yet politically charged compositions — like Danez Smith with Dear White America.

Is poetry more important now than ever?

Epic

Of course, some argue. Money, fame, material goods: modern life revolves around shallow and fleeting things. Poetry is the antidote to all this. Emotion, sensation, morality, philosophy: this is the substance of poetry — from short scribbles to sprawling epics. Engaging with this reminds us of the essential inner life that we all have, and what it really means to be alive.

Not so, others respond. Other art forms can achieve this too, and often far more effectively. Think of the cathartic impact of theatre, or the ability of cinema to transport you to entirely different universes. Sure, the best poetry can be rich and life-affirming, but it remains in the fringes of our cultural lives. As for Instapoetry, it is unsophisticated and ridden with clichés.

You Decide

  1. Is poetry the greatest form of literature?
  2. Do poems need to be confessional to be effective?

Activities

  1. It is time to write your own Instapoem! Using no more than five lines and 50 words, write a short poem that could be shared on social media. Try to make the language as engaging and effective as possible. If you like, share your composition with the class.
  2. Consider the extract from Sylvia Plath’s Tulips, which is quoted in the article, and the Rupi Kaur poem Medicine (also quoted). What similarities or differences do the two pieces have? Which do you prefer? Is it possible to say one poem is better than another?

Some People Say...

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am. I am. I am.”

Sylvia Plath

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Poetry Society survey consulted 348 young poetry enthusiasts, aged 11 to 17, from around the world — 59% of them lived in the UK, while the rest were from countries including the US, Canada, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Philippines. Of those surveyed, 95% also said it was important for time to be set aside for creative writing every day. A further 51% described mental health benefits linked to writing poetry.
What do we not know?
If Instapoets will one day supplant traditional writers. The survey’s top 20 is still dominated by old favourites including Robert Frost, Carol Ann Duffy, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Wilfred Owen, William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot.

Word Watch

Mental illness
For much of her life, Plath suffered from clinical depression. She was treated with electric shock therapy, a method of last resort in treating major mental illness.
Ted Hughes
English poet and children’s writer (1930-1998). He served as the UK’s Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death. In 2008, The Times ranked Hughes fourth on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
Voted
According to a survey by The Poetry Society.
Doubled
According to data released by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The percentage of Americans who said they had read poetry in the last 12 months was 11.7% in 2017, up from 6.7% in 2012.
Rupi Kaur
Her debut collection Milk and Honey has sold over 2.5 million copies. The book was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 77 weeks.
Danez Smith
The youngest ever winner of the prestigious Forward poetry prize. Former winners include Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Don Patterson.
Cathartic
Psychological relief caused by the expression of strong emotions.