Poems can be secret weapons, claims new book

Rule breaker: Award-winner Benjamin Zephaniah pushes boundaries by writing in oral patterns.

Can a poem change the world? Today is National Poetry Day, and according to a new book poems can improve our health. Some think poetry is even powerful enough to cause political change.

“Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number!”

In 1989, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s verse echoed around China’s Tiananmen Square, chanted by thousands of rebels demanding change. In 2017 Jeremy Corbyn recited the words to thousands at Glastonbury as he described his vision for Great Britain.

As the UK celebrates National Poetry Day today, many are considering the true power of a poem.

For some, poems do not change a thing. Writer Tom Hodgkinson describes poems as “supremely useless”. But he thinks this pointlessness is good because poems offer a pleasurable escape from the “real world of busy-ness and moneymaking”.

But according to a new book The Poetry Pharmacy, poetry can make make you feel better if you are feeling bad. If you feel anxious, the book prescribes some Derek Mahon: “I lie here in a riot of sunlight / watching the day break and the clouds flying. / Everything is going to be alright.”

But for some, poetry means protest. As soon as Donald Trump was elected President, people started to write. Danez Smith’s You’re Dead America describes how: “the man from TV / is gonna be president, / he has no words / & hair beyond simile.” According to poetry editor Jeff Schott, poems like this can “stir us into action”.

But can poetry really change the world?

Rhyme and reason

“Just one line of verse can inspire change,” argue some. Poetry makes you see the world from a different point of view. And this special insight leads to change. It can compel you to fight for justice, or help you overcome difficulties in your own life.

“No one has ever changed his life because of a poem,” says author Michael Robbins. But that is the best thing about it. In a world in which everything must have a practical use, we must be able to experience some things just for pleasure.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite poem?

Activities

  1. Ready…Set…GO! You have five minutes to speed-write a poem. Try not to think about it too much — just focus on the images and words that come naturally to you.

Some People Say...

“All poets, all writers are political.”

Sonia Sanchez

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the UK poetry book sales have increased by 50% in the last four years. There are also now over 30 annual festivals dedicated to spoken and written poetry.
What do we not know?
Lines from Shelley’s poem have been recited by rebels and revolutionaries since they were written; but it is impossible to say precisely what effect this had on the historical events that unfolded.

Word Watch

Shelley
English Romantic poet (1792-1822). These lines come from his 1819 poem The Mask of Anarchy.
Tiananmen Square
In Beijing in which there were large student-led demonstrations. A least several hundred civilians were killed in the government crackdown in what is known as the Tiananmen massacre.
The Poetry Pharmacy
By William Sieghart. Published by Particular Books.
Derek Mahon
Northern Irish poet born in 1941. He has published over 20 collections of poetry.

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