Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Poetry providing light in our darkest moments

The manner in which poetry is taught in schools is, on the whole, detrimental to the way in which poetry is perceived by society. A Social and Behavioural Sciences study led in 2012 determined that “the experience of the teachers of literature shows that poetry is one of the least popular subjects”. I can’t imagine I was alone in associating poetry with the dreary and daunting anthology we were presented with and forced to learn off by heart in Year 11. The same study revealed that researchers felt students were being made to analyse “a wrong selection of texts which do not correspond to [their] age”, which, in turn, means that many perceive reading poetry as “a problem”.

However, it isn’t only young moody teenagers who lack sensibility with regards to poetry. The irrational fear of this literary format continues well into many adults’ lives. But whilst we are once again quick to blame the education system, we must not forget that poetry has always been viewed as an unapproachable art form. In the past, poetry was often considered to be ‘high’ art targeted at ‘elite’ readers. The idea that poetry is elitist has persisted up to the present day and I would argue fervently that people are afraid of and intimidated by poems. However, it has recently become clear to me that the stereotype of poetry being snobby and stuffy could not be further from the truth.

To me and many other people in the UK, the most significant example of poetry brightening humanity’s darkest moments is Tony Walsh’s work following the Manchester Bombings of 2017

Society has increasingly begun to acknowledge and promote the ability poetry has to render the abstractness of emotions tangible and finding words where there aren’t any. A recent article published by The Guardian discussed the impact poetry can have on people suffering with mental illness. These individuals reported that “words have the power to steady us, to make us feel better,” and that “lines of poetry can be food for the soul”. ReLit, a website which looks at ways in which literature can help us cope with emotional strain, additionally determined that the “attentive immersion in great literature, especially poetry, can relieve, restore and reinvigorate the human mind”.

To me and many other people in the UK, the most significant example of poetry brightening humanity’s darkest moments is Tony Walsh’s work following the Manchester Bombings of 2017. His poem ‘This is the Place’ was originally written in 2015 for Forever Manchester, a charity which raises money to fund and support community activity across Greater Manchester. Yet, following the tragedy in May, people turned back towards Walsh’s words for comfort and strength. He performed his 720-word piece at the Vigil held the day after the terrorist attack and then again at the One Love Concert on 4 June 2017. Liam Gallagher said the text was “the best thing [he’d] ever heard come out of any Mancunian’s mouth, ever”, and writer Jeanette Winterson said that Walsh “found words where there are no words”.

We need to enable young people to engage with poetry by highlighting the impact this form of writing can have on the human mind

It is not exactly surprising that it was poetry that gave the public such a release during this bleak period. Walsh discussed the power of his words in an interview and cleverly underpinned the reasons as to why this art form has such an effect. He says that, as well as being “life changing and life enhancing”, poetry is “ancient and in us”. He particularly focuses on the idea of rhyme and rhythms, stating his belief that “we’re hardwired to receive rhyme”. Walsh then added that once poets find that “balance between meaning and rhyme and flow, there’s a music to it which we respond to instinctively”.

In primary school, kids love poetry, rhyme and messing about with words. They enjoy discovering that we are able to play around with words to convey thoughts and feelings. Later, the secondary school’s curriculum kicks in and it turns people off poetry as an artform altogether. But poetry is so much more than a school curriculum that has to be memorised and regurgitated in an exam. It is in fact a therapeutic way to express and explore the abstractness of human emotion.

Since arriving at Warwick, my English Literature degree has exposed me to a new side of the poetic art form and I have now learnt to appreciate Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge. But we need to learn to appreciate these wonderful Romantics, as well as other poets of course, earlier than at degree level. Once and for all, we need to enable young people to engage with poetry by highlighting the impact this form of writing can have on the human mind, instead of demonising it as aloof and elitist.

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