Here’s what snags my chakras about poetry: so many people remain utterly repelled by or indifferent to it throughout their lifetime. And who’s to blame them? After school teachers show us such thrilling forms of engagement as underlining the use of assonance in a sonnet, poetry is shut away like fancy china on a high shelf. And there it remains, dusted off only in the service of ceremony.
Cue montage of stiff recitals of trite poems at wedding receptions. Throw in John Hannah trembling his way through W.H Auden’s Funeral Blues in Four Weddings and a Funeral. This title also serves as a good guideline for the amount of times the average person is willing to stomach hearing poetry in a public setting.
The late, great poet Tony Hoagland talked about language and ‘how it will move, if not inside, then/around the circumference of almost anything’. But, apart from a committed but small club of poetry geeks, people seem content to let poetry flounder into irrelevance as soon as they close their school anthologies for the final time.
So what can poems do for us outside the remit of exams, weddings and funerals? How’s about gifting a new mum ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ by Liz Berry to welcome them into a ‘wild queendom’? Or send your mate ‘Apples’ by Rachel Long so they can nod in grim recognition at the indignity of running for a train with ‘tits play-doughing/out of a shit bra’. Or maybe you need searing hot takes on popular 90s sitcoms, a la Hera Lindsay Bird’s banger of a poem Monica:
‘What kind of a name for a show was F.R.I.E.N.D.S
When two of them were related
And the rest of them just fucked for ten seasons?’
Poetry is also a thrilling entry into the absurd. Selima Hill makes worlds of lawless oddity that are always a delight to visit. Her poem ‘Never Go to Sleep While You’re Driving’ advises us to ‘never drive a car when you’re dead/And if you meet a fish on a bicycle/Never even think they’re man and wife’. It’s easy to dismiss the whimsical as frivolous or childish. But a poem that revels in the silly can be the very thing to ground us in a wild and unknowable world.
I enjoy sharing poems on Twitter, where great poetry can sit alongside comedy skits, political rants and glossy selfies. This has inevitably influenced the type of poetry that gains traction. Short, zeitgeist-y poems designed to attract the eye with Insta-ready graphics are the formula for virality. Alternatively, I try to pick poems that compel the casual scroller to pause and ponder. Take ' Spoiler' by Halya Alan. It’s a chunky poem with a last line that reads:
‘I am here to tell you that everything you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful’
This line teeters on the platitudinous, eliciting that satisfying tug of recognition in the chest. But it also refuses neatness. Online, we are not only forced to consume information rapidly but make snap decisions on how we should feel or react. Sharing this longer poem with its bittersweet ending feels subversive. Poetry stretches our ability to process the abstract, to reconcile with that which is and simultaneously isn’t. It is the wonderland in which contradiction is not just accepted but welcomed. There is a growing appetite for social media content that stokes nuanced response over dramatic spikes of dopamine or cortisol. A transformative poem demands we sit with an image and view it from this angle, then another and another. What a welcome respite from the toggles social media often pulls: Zealous Joy! Disproportionate Outrage! Muted Arousal With A Chaser of Existential Dread!
Some advice for those ambivalent or outright intolerant to poetry: arrive to a poem the same way you do meeting new people. Sometimes it’s exciting, other times tiresome or intimidating. But there remains an unquenchable curiosity. There are poems that did not move me on a first reading that revealed their charm months or even years later. We should engage with people, and poems, of all walks, embracing the challenge of divergent perspectives. Not all of them will be firm friends or favourites, but each teaches us something we didn’t know before.
But just like we sometimes forgo an Adam Curtis documentary in favour of rewatching Cheetah Girls 2, poems can also provide immediate comfort. Look no further than Kim Addonizio’s poem ‘To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably In The Next Stall’ which frequently does the rounds online. At the end, it simply and wondrously assures us: ‘listen I love you joy is coming’.
Poetry can be decadent and ceremonial, but it can just as often be the Pot Noodle we wolf down at the stroke of midnight. It can be quick, filthy, naive, sullen, sweet or downright dangerous. Why do we take poems so damn seriously? I beg of you all: unclench. You don’t have to show up with an ironed shirt or received pronunciation. You don’t even need to be literate, for poetry is an oral art form that belonged in the body long before it migrated to the printed page.
Those who uphold poetry as a rarefied realm with a hefty licence fee are to be ignored, pitied or pushed into the sea: reader’s choice! Think of poems as word snacks to be gobbled with relish, surreptitiously nibbled on the bus or the toilet, shared with old friends and new lovers. Much like you might prefer M&Ms to Skittles, there’ll be poems that do it for you more than others. The trick is to have as slutty a palette as possible. So read widely and often, with an unwavering trust in your own instincts. And don’t forget to spread the joy: where memes, nudes, and flowers fail, poems are sure to flourish.
Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin
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