Does poetry still matter?
In the time of Covid, poetry is thriving. More people than ever are going online for ways to communicate and connect while the multitude of poetry groups, courses, workshops and open-mic performance events are encouraging engagement with the art and craft of poetry. This has to be good. Poetry was birthed from an oral tradition which existed for millennia, long before the stories they told were captured in words.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (author unknown) was subscribed by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC from much earlier texts. The written versions of the Iliad and Odyssey (Homer) are thought to be from around the 8th century BC, but were first spoken centuries before. Transmission of these works was fluid rather than fixed because nobody recited the same tale in exactly the same way. While the core remained solid, how it was told would shift and change depending on the audience.
Sagas such as Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English, and the bardic tradition of the Celtic world, e.g. the Mabinogion , first compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier sources, were all dependent on voice, sometimes accompanied by music.
The integration of poetry with song can be seen down through the years. Translations of the Iliad begin with references to singing, e.g. their first words Sing Goddess (Caroline Alexander and Richard Lattimore) and Rage Goddess. Sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles (Robert Fagles). Line six of Paradise Lost (John Milton) contains Sing heavenly muse, Song of myself (Walt Whitman)begins I celebrate myself, and sing myself while another Whitman poem is called I sing the body electric while the collection of poems in Cantos (Ezra Pound) have the Italian or song as their title.
Somewhere through the years, the association of poetry with music was lost. I might have liked poetry classes better at school if this link had been used as a teaching technique. I hated poetry, and blame the National Curriculum of the time which thought young teenagers should know works such as Rape of the Lock (Alexander Pope), Khubla Khan (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and page after page of the pastoral epic Michael (Wordsworth). I still remember with discomfort those long hours and even longer texts!
Today there may be more chances to understand poetry with the inclusion of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, and Benjamin Zephaniah. However, the decision to make poetry optional for GCSE students in England during 2021 risks the loss of any gains made by the promotion of more accessible language and ideas. We have Covid to thank for this which provides a neat return to the title of this post.
Over the past six months, I’ve joined a number of online poetry workshops and courses, with hundreds of other participants writing and sharing their work. The process of daily writing prompts, alongside the giving and receiving of feedback, has been a powerful experience. I’m learning what works and what fails to resonate. There is no bar to participation other than the standard agreement that contributions should not promote racism or abuse etc and critique be kind and constructive. For anyone seeking a starting point I’d recommend Wendy Pratt and Angela Carr or taking a look at this month of poetry prompts list from Jo Bell. YouTube is also an excellent source of advice and guidance, especially this channel by Jen Campbell who also introduces the history of fairy tales in videos such as Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and many more.
To answer the question does poetry still matter? I think the answer is Yes. In the time of Covid, it seems to matter a lot. With millions of people being socially distanced and isolated, poetry can offer both distraction and occupation. Today, it exists in more forms than ever and future post will explore page and stage poetry, which opens up the difference between poems written to be read or spoken.
For all I didn’t take to Wordsworth at school, he was spot on when he described poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity while, many centuries earlier, Plato wrote poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
With those quotes in mind here are the links to papers by Dana Gioia which are worth reading. Can Poetry Matter? and Poetry as Enchantment. The latter is also the title of a YouTube lecture by Gioia from the Library of Congress.
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