I think that everyone can agree that the last year has been like no other. People have turned to many sources for comfort; whether it has been binge-watching Bridgeton on Netflix or baking banana bread until you no longer need a recipe book, our coping mechanisms have been largely similar. However, this year and in times of difficulty throughout my life, poetry has been my outlet. I find solace in writing my thoughts onto a page and turning them into something far greater than the fears inside my mind. It helps me make sense of the world around me when nothing else seems clear, and I know that I am not alone in this.
Throughout history, poetry has been a source of escapism, a route for activism and an expression of creativity. Yet, when most people think of poetry, their minds revert to the romantic sonnets of Shakespeare or the sorrowful odes of Keats. Whilst these are great examples of the beauty of poetic form, poetry is not limited to, or by, these constructs. As an English Literature graduate, studying poetry was part and parcel of my degree and as much as I enjoyed reading the works of the Romantic poets, the writings of Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Tony Harrison resonated with me more than the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This is because their poems are packed full of loaded language, rich with metaphor and innuendo. Their lexis, however, is not lyrical jargon but plain and simple. It is the dialect of the common people, highlighting the injustices they face, written in a language accessible to all.
Seamus Heaney, for example, a figurehead of The Belfast Poets, famously wrote poetry at the time of and about The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the late 60’s to the late 90’s. He used the mummified bodies found in peat bogs in Denmark as metaphors for the lives being lost in the conflict, posing the question of identity without directly referring to his home. His poetry was both an escape and a commentary on the situation in Northern Ireland, where the personal became political and poetry was of the utmost importance. Arguably, in a post-Brexit Britain, the question of identity is on the lips of those at home and abroad, just as much now, as it was in Ireland at the time. An incredible property of poetry is that words written over thirty years ago are still relevant today, and new meanings can be derived from the simplest of phrases. Turning to Heaney’s words in times of uncertainty has provided comfort and clarity for readers for decades, demonstrating how poetry has become a necessity in coping, as opposed to fond pastime.
Much like Heaney, Duffy and Harrison also use(d) their poetry to challenge both social and poetic norms. Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [Uz]’ was a game changer for me when I came across it during an A-Level English lecture. To read his unapologetic use of colloquial language and his northern dialect boldly sprawled across the page “So right, ye buggers, then!” captured my attention and has never let it go. The poem itself is a defiance of the old standards of writing and speaking in Received Pronunciation, which excluded poets like Harrison who spoke with an accent. This poem particularly resonated with me as I have been subjected to humiliation due to my accent and questioned my own integrity as a poet because of it. Reading and listening to Harrison’s poetry has been an escape for me during lockdown, but also an inspiration to write about what I feel in the language I choose.
Similarly, our Poet Laurette from 2009-2019, Carol Ann Duffy is a key example of how poetry is such an important outlet for emotions and tool for social change. Her poetry subverts traditions, confronts social norms and defies stereotypes to the extreme. If you want to appreciate the reminiscent tones of Mean Time or laugh out loud at The World’s Wife collection, Duffy’s poetry has it all. Using her poetic voice, Duffy has shed light on important issues such as: Sexism, LGBTQ+ representation and racism through her work. Though she often creates personas for her poems, her personal frustrations at the society in which she is writing are abundantly clear. As our first female and LGBTQ+ Poet Laurette she is, in my opinion, an inspiration to future generations of poets.
Now, as you can tell, I am passionate about poetry (I hope the nine grand a year was worth it). Reading and listening to poetry is wonderful but writing the words yourself is a whole other experience. Growing up, I faced a lot of bullying and it has, for better or worse, shaped the person I am today. I found myself too embarrassed to talk to my parents or teachers for a long time and so I wrote down what was happening to me instead. It was easier for me to scribble my thoughts onto a page than have to relive them out loud. Once I discovered poetry, my own poetic voice born out of this pain and though I left school in 2014, it was only in 2020 that was I finally brave enough to speak up for myself. I wrote a spoken word poem called ‘Growing Up’ and posted it on social media, and the messages of support I received were overwhelming. Past classmates reached out to congratulate me, I gained confidence in myself and my writing, and even created a website along with social media pages to publish my work. The incredible thing is, the more I wrote, the happier I became, and I no longer craved a sense of validation from the people I used to know. As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety due to the traumas of school, I thought a pandemic might knock me back. However, it is through poetry that I was able to overcome any negative thoughts that crept in and it is through poetry that I have been able to make sense of a world filled with confusion and uncertainty.
As I have mentioned above, throughout history, poetry has been an outlet and a beacon of hope during dark times, not just for the poets themselves, but for their readers and audiences too. Whilst actor, comedian and poet Tim Key turned to writing hilarious verses during the pandemic in his book He Used Thought as a Wife: An Anthology of Poems & Conversations, we saw Amanda Gorman perform ‘The Hill We Climb’ on a global scale at President Biden’s inauguration, highlighting the immense importance of poetry in today’s world. Poetry offers a form of expression for thoughts and feelings that are otherwise incomprehensible. It is a language unto itself. For me, poetry is my comfort, my solace and my passion, my aim is to share that experience with anyone willing to listen.