Why do we put poetry in a corner?
Several times across the last year, I’ve heard poetry described as a “niche” art form. I realize in this blog I’m preaching to the choir (as we say in the US), and maybe this niggles most because I myself struggled with poetry as a teen.
But as this choir knows, children have an innate love of rhyme and word play. My five-year-old can rattle off books by heart, and often he sings songs after hearing them once, the words rolling around for hours afterward.
So I’m hopeful that for younger generations, this affinity holds true for longer. This research Forward commissioned from the National Literacy Trust in 2018 showed that almost 1 in 2 young people engage with poetry in their free time, and it’s more true for children in receipt of free school meals (55.7%).
But if these stats are true, when did poetry get pegged as “niche”?
It worries me because poetry feels all the more critical in an era where children and young people have been increasingly isolated due to the pandemic. Poetry offers a valuable medium to help build bridges.
Bringing poetry into schools can support literacy skills and language learning by integrating reading, writing, speaking and listening in meaningful ways. It offers inroads to sometimes-thorny topics such as culture and identity, and it can help promote students’ empathy. Creating poetry can help alleviate anxiety and improve emotional resilience. It can be empowering for children and young people to discover their voices, and improve their self-awareness, self-expression and self-esteem.
For me the proof of poetry’s value lives in 2020. It was a thunderous year for poetry. Millions turned to poetry to make sense of a rapidly shifting world. 131 million people participated in National Poetry Day last year, and poetry’s popularity was spurred by a number of actors sharing poetry on social media and digital readings. 2.3 million shared glimpses of their locked-down worlds via Liv Torc’s #haiflu (which Susannah Herbert celebrated here).
For eons, we’ve turned to poetry at weddings and funerals. We know it can illuminate and console like nothing else can. So why do we put it in a corner?
I make no bones that for teenage me the fustiness of the poetry we read in school was a problem. Diversity of voice is obviously key, and diversity of form too. Many of those young people surveyed back in 2018 were reading poetry online (32.6%), watching videos (31.7%) or listening to spoken recordings (18.6%). And this groundswell of the last year springs from the digital innovation of this collective (poets, teachers, librarians, publishers, organisations).
We are a sector that promotes participation because poetry at its heart is agile, connective, and inclusive. And in an age of uncertainty, it helps us ‘imagine other ways of navigating into our collective future’ (Adrienne Rich).
Mónica Parle is Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation. She was previously the National Poetry Day Manager and prior to that Executive Director at First Story. She is a Mexican American from Southeast Texas, and extracts of her novels in progress have been selected as the Longlist Winner of the 2020 Bath Novel Award and Highly Commended in Faber’s 2018 FAB Prize. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Houston.