It’s a form of expression spanning every genre, but is it still finding favour?
W Somerset Maugham once said that poetry is “the crown of literature”, and yet modern society does not value poetry like it values maths or science. Poetry is presented as the language of the elite – intangible and out of reach for the everyman.
This is reflected in the recent decision to make the study of poetry “optional” for GCSE English students. Whilst Shakespeare plays remain compulsory, poetry has been deemed worthy of only an “optional” status. The decision reverberated around the literary world, as it suggested that the government views poetry as an irrelevant literary form.
But is this really the case? There is a misconception that poetry is an antiquated form of literature. In reality, poems are perhaps more timeless and more accessible than plays or novels. Poems are the purest, most raw expressions of emotion. They are less prettified, less refined, and, for this reason, completely essential. Poems can be a plea for help, a cry for justice, a demonstration of love, a song of appreciation. Poetry can be spoken, rapped, sung, encoded. Lines of verse are the oldest form of currency, predating both most other forms of literature.
Poetry gives us the truest insight into the human condition.
One only needs to briefly browse online to find the abundance of poems that have arisen from the current coronavirus pandemic. From Laureates to amateur poets, people across the globe have been turning to verse to express their emotions, and the literary world is much richer for it. In her COVID inspired poem, ‘The Social Distance’ Kim Roberts writes: “the muzzled world. /On the sidewalk, we try a new geometry, /but some repeatedly fail their maths”. Could there be a more perfect way to articulate the issues surrounding social distancing? Roberts’ extended mathematical metaphor encapsulates the public’s lack of logic and their inability to adapt old reasoning to a changing world.
In his poem ‘The Air, Corporeal’, Seán Hewitt describes the uncertainty that pervades society: “we cannot know what the past/ will be made of next”. Is there a more apt way to express the utter confusion and distress that everyone is currently feeling? Hewitt’s juxtaposition between the past and the future places us, the reader, in the middle: the no man’s land of the present where current events are so unprecedented that we can find no answers in history.
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In fact, there are poems in response to nearly every modern global phenomenon or issue. Refugees, wars, violence, persecution, racism, homophobia. Everything. One particular line of Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’ resonates with the current refugee crisis in the UK: “no one puts their children in a boat /unless the water is safer than the land.” Wow. Those two lines carry more power and gravity than any speech or statement that a politician could ever make. Shire verbalises every inch of pain and suffering that a refugee might feel. The emotion in his lines is tangible. Poetry does that.
Verse is the voice of the modern world. The scared, unsure voice. There is a reason why people worldwide are driven to express themselves through poetry: the process, and the product, are cathartic. Poems are relevant because they are written by relevant people, experiencing relevant issues. They are human babies born to pertinent parents.
Poems can reach people in a way that other literature cannot. People who dismiss the genre as irrelevant have perhaps just not encountered something that speaks to them. They have not had that experience of reading a line of verse and sitting back in their chair, thinking “wow, it’s almost like this poet read my mind”.
Maybe the flowery sonnets of the 1600s are less relatable to a modern teenager, but their themes nonetheless remain timeless. Love – tick. Grief – tick. Anger, resentment, frustration – tick, tick, tick.
The move by exam boards to take poetry off the GSCE syllabus is counter-intuitive; in an attempt to make students engage more with literature (by removing poetry), they have taken away the one thing that might actually reach a generation of confused and disillusioned young people. The very people who could be writing the poetry of our future.
All literature is important – that is undeniable – but poetry is arguably the true “crown”, because it reigns above the other forms with its timelessness and relevance. Few people can quote from an Arthur Miller play. Many people can quote Mary Elizabeth Frye’s line “do not stand at my grave and weep”, because it speaks to every grieving person everywhere.
Poetry is relevant to the modern world, and to our future world, because it holds the key understanding each other, and it is essential that we, as a society, recognise, and honour, that.