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Why our troubled times are perfect for poetry

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 6: Poet Johnathan McClain at the Bowery Poetry Club. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 6: Poet Johnathan McClain at the Bowery Poetry Club. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty

March 4, 2019   4 mins

This time last year, I was drowning happily in poetry while the Beast from the East raged outside. My floor was covered in stacks of contemporary collections by a thrillingly varied cohort of writers. I was chair of judges for the Forward Prizes, one of the country’s most prestigious poetry prizes, and I was preparing for the longlist meeting. The panel – including poets Mimi Khalvati, Niall Campbell, ChrisMcCabe and Jen Campbell – was in a quandary. How to single out one winner in each category, from this wide selection of excellent writing? Poetry was clearly having a moment.

It still is. Recent figures from Nielsen BookScan revealed that poetry sales grew last year by 12%, and that they had also grown in 2017. In fact, over the past six years or so, poetry has been enjoying a massive reputational transformation and artistic flowering.

The seeds of this renaissance were planted in the 1990s and 2000s, when established poets such as Andrew Motion and (especially) Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay become popular champions of the form, using their position as respected public figures and much-garlanded writers to make an argument for its richness, relevance and accessibility. This isn’t to say they dumbed it down. Quite the opposite: their literary activism continually reminded people that poetry is and always has been readable, pleasurable and relevant.

Our dark and troubled times have fertilised poetic activism – and given a new urgency to a new audience’s search for voices and words which give respect to every type of experience. Issues of races, class, gender, sexuality, inequality; acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety of oppression; expressions of terror for a dying world; the brave mining of personal experience: poetry is connecting with a young audience both comfortable with and hungry for previously unheard voices.

Interestingly, two thirds of poetry purchases over the past year were made by Millennials – of whom the majority were women. So, the poetry boom is gendered (although book sales of creative writing in all forms have always been dominated by women readers) and demographically weighted too. This has brought fresh interest and energy to the industry, revitalised poetry as an art form and finally given respect to those voices which are usually erased or ignored.

It has also diversified what is being commissioned, reviewed and written. There is a great impulse among this young audience to look beyond the traditional – read male, Western, historical – canons of literature. In poetry now, the boldest voices are those of women, queer writers (such as the award-winning Danez Smith and Jay Bernard) and non-white writers of all kinds. It’s there in Jacqueline Saphra’s new collection, Dad, Remember You Are Dead – a stunningly accomplished and frank reckoning with a terrifying, sleazy patriarchal figure. Meanwhile, Karen McCarthy Woolf’s collection, Seasonal Disturbancestakes on climate change and migration with delicacy and poignancy.

Poetry has long needed this renaissance. It was once a chore, redolent of dust-covered lace doilies, post-war sobriety, wireless sets and births, marriages and funerals. I always wrote poetry, up until I was 13 or 14, then the dirge-like process of writing GCSE level essays analysing it squashed the joy out. The muse wasn’t awakened again until I saw Alice Oswald perform live in March 2015, reciting from memory. I bought her collection, Memorial, took up my own pen again and never looked back. I now write my prose fiction by expanding and piecing together my poetry like a mosaic.

Poetry’s long heritage allows it to be simultaneously cutting-edge and classic, drawing on past and present. It’s part of a global tradition: every culture has its own poetic history, or a ‘verse history’ through songs. Sappho’s beautiful words, for example, were set to haunting music and written to be sung, while songwriters like PJ Harvey have also published as poets. Even the most gifted rappers craft lines as delicately as any poet, and deliver them with great theatricality and skill. It’s also incredibly porous of other art forms like theatre, dance, rap and political provocation. My own first film as a director, An Impossible Poison, was an adaptation of a poem of mine, demonstrating how narrative and performance, words and visuals can blend together.

Historical poetry purists might balk at avant-garde cross-disciplinary work, or at the idea of poets uploading shots of their printed work onto Instagram, or putting a short performance video on YouTube. But this genre-agnostic, discipline-hopping approach is natural for the young. Poets have always performed their work in live settings but for so many readers, classrooms imprisoned words on pages; students were turned off poetry by the memory of boring lessons. Something has shifted, though, and poetry has been liberated by the internet.

Ultimately, live events and book sales have seen a rise in attendance and purchases because of what poets put online. The digital aspects of poets’ work are a shopfront, an introduction, a playpen, an experimental space, not some kind of threat to the poetry gods.

I love the punkish, DIY, multi-disciplinary creativity of contemporary poets. However, finding an audience online or being part of a cool, small-scale performance poetry night doesn’t guarantee wider recognition or a long term career. Poetry needs and deserves institutional support and investment in order to survivel. So why aren’t there more opportunities for poets to build their careers and be supported in creating a body of work, with book advances, appearance fees, paid residencies and commissions? Perhaps this will change as poetry’s allure grows.

Poetry gets to the heart of things quickly and effectively, with a unique mixture of emotional immediacy and technical sophistication. We are living in news, commentary and media-saturated times, with a constant cycle of reportage, reaction and political speculation. The digital revolution has enabled new poets to find a platform. But it has also led to both a fracturing of our attention span and an overwhelming proliferation content.

Poetry’s brevity, purity and clarity cuts through all of that. It can address the most pressing issues; in Claudia Rankine’s famous recnt collection Citizen, she looks at race and racism in America through a palimpsest-like construction, which includes prose and testimony as well as traditional formal poetry.

It can also mine the deepest emotions. And yet (for me at least), reading it is an act of solitary contemplation. You can’t rush reading poetry and you can’t deny its candour and wisdom, even when the outer world gives us lots of reasons to panic.

Bidisha is writer and artist.


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