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In praise of poetry

Okay, so you’re probably in one of two camps; you think poetry is cool, expressive and the perfect way to write down your innermost thoughts, or you think it’s naff, outdated and would rather just listen to grime songs instead because they rhyme and they’re waaay more fun, right? If you’re in camp two, give poetry a chance. Like you said, you already enjoy things that rhyme…

It zhooshes language up

“Too wee, or not to wee. That is the question,” proclaims my mate before embarking on a longish car journey. It’s not ROFL, exactly, but quoting a verse from Hamlet’s soliloquy is a bit more entertaining than “mmm, I don’t know whether or not I need a wee.” That’s one of the reasons I love poetry. It makes language fun. It shines a new light on the drab, the dreary, the day-to-day stuff of life. In the words of Matthew Arnold, an Actual Poet, “poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.” One of my favourite poems is about a mattress. Point made.

It NAILS feelings…

Robert Frost had a good acid test for poetry: “the lump in the throat”. “A complete poem,” he said, “is where an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.” You know that feeling of numbness after you’ve been really devastated by something or someone? Well, Emily Dickinson has it down. You’ll find your own though. CS Lewis (of Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe fame) said “friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself’ and that is exactly what it’s like when you find the poet that speaks to you.

…but it’s also licensed nonsense

Jabberwocky by Edward Lear is a poem written for the sheer hell of it. It plays with language — or, rather, it plays with sounds, like babies do when they are learning to talk. To read it is to indulge in the ridiculous, the fantastic, and the impossible. Poetry, more than any art form, can do that: it is self-contained, with its own rhythm, rules and logic. “A big brown bear is knocking at my door” writes Selima Hill in My First Bra, and for a few minutes we can just suspend our belief.

It speaks truth to power

Telling WWI generals how it is in the trenches, telling presidents how it feels to be discriminated against, telling governments how it is to survive on benefits, telling event organisers what it means to be gay… as the old saying doesn’t quite go, the poetic is political, and the political is poetic. Like an ancient form of Twitter, poetry is an efficient form of communication that can – if the poem or poet is a success – strike right to the top.

It’s funny

Not always – sometimes it is seriously, utterly devastating – but some poems can really deep-tissue massage the funny bone: Cinderella by Road Dahl (NOT what you expect), Mr Oxford Don by John Agard, Nobody by Emily Dickinson and most things by John Betjeman are excellent places to start.

It’s not too spenny

Collections are expensive, sure – but there are millions of poems available for nothing at all on the internet. Look at Poetry Foundation, Poetry Archives, The Poetry Society… and Instagram, which believe it or not is becoming something of a poetic hotbed.

It can be written by anyone…

Every language and every dialect in every region of every country of the world has poetry in some form or another, and has done since the beginning of language. Some of the richest poems have been written by some of the poorest people: people without great formal education, who haven’t travelled much beyond their own village, let alone the world. Poets can be young or old, middle or working class, male or female and anywhere on any spectrum. They don’t need to have lots of time: the shortest poem in English, Flea, is four words – five, including the title. Reading poems helps a lot, but they don’t necessarily need to know much about poetry. Or own anything other than a piece of paper, and a pen.

…including you

There are all sorts of competitions, courses and guides for aspiring young poets. For inspiration, check out the latest winners of the Foyle’s Young Poet of the Year Competition – then just sharpen your pencil, and get rhyming.

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Image: Amber Griffin

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