To be Given a Voice
Becoming a poet is kind of like running away to join the circus. When you’re a kid, nobody actually seems to know of anyone who has done it, nobody really wants to do it, and though you’re dimly aware that someone, somewhere, has to be doing it, it’s not exactly something that is a realistic or viable option. ‘Poet’, like ‘Clown’ or ‘Juggler’ or ‘Man with a tightrope and an astoundingly blasé attitude towards falling’ does not appear on those lists of jobs you sometimes see at careers days, or on the lips of parents in primary school playgrounds around 3pm, when they’re telling other parents, in a strange, competitive, lying, bragging, sort of way, what high-flying career their five-year-old will be doing in twenty years time. But, as I said before, someone’s got to be a poet, just as someone’s got to join the circus, otherwise there wouldn’t be poetry, there wouldn’t be circuses, and the world would be a far more boring place.
The problem with this analogy is the opposition with which the world sees these two things. The circus is seen as something less than a normal job. The ridiculously skilled people who juggle, and tightrope walk, and risk their lives to entertain tents full of strangers are looked down on, and yet poetry, and by extension, poets, are placed on a strange pedestal. I have a degree in English Literature and Journalism, and the way poetry is seen in academic circles, the way it is treated, it kills me inside. Poetry should not be treated as something difficult, or as something that ‘normal people’ don’t understand, and yet it is so often presented as such, despite the fact that poetry is a form that was created with accessibility in mind. It comes from the oral tradition, of people speaking to each other, of travellers telling stories. The rhyme, the rhythm, all these things that have been pigeonholed and quantified and given long and complex names by an academic tradition that thrives on exclusion, just started as a way to help people remember, in the same way that people today, who would never imagine memorising a paragraph of a book, easily remember the words to hundreds of songs.
Poetry stays with people, because it has always been with us, it has lived in the hearts of people, and societies, for longer than anyone can ever know. Poetry is one of the oldest forms of structured communication we have. It existed in pre-history, before the written record. People experienced poetry before there were such things as plays, or novels, or even writing itself. The first poem we have records of is Egyptian, and from around 2,500BC, making it over 4,500 years old, and it is certain that there were much older poems that we have now, sadly, lost forever. Poetry is, more than anything else, something that belongs in all of us. It is something that binds us together, throughout the passing centuries. It is found in every culture, in every era, in every country, throughout time, and across the Earth. It speaks to us, on a level that is, in many ways, indefinable.
When I go into high schools I find rows of young people who have already decided that they do not like poetry, but when you think about it, young children love poetry. They grow up reading books full of poetry. Those picture books, with short rhyming sentences on every page, those books full of rhythm, that fill bedtimes with a nursery-rhyme beat, those limericks, and even, in some cases, those books specifically stated to be full of children’s poetry, they are what children treasure. They are their first introduction to literature, and they love it. It is only as they get older, when they are asked to define, to study, and to appreciate ‘academic’ poetry, ‘classic’ poetry, that they begin to say the words that stay with so many of them for the rest of their lives: “I don’t like poetry.” “I don’t get poetry.” “Poetry isn’t my thing.” The thing is, so often it’s not the poetry that they don’t like, it’s the culture surrounding poetry. It’s the way it’s framed. It’s the way it’s taught.
The modern attitude towards poetry is one of confusion, of misunderstanding, and apprehension. Poetry is taught, not felt, and people are graded on the way they experience something that is so very personal. Young people in inner-city schools are given poems about daffodils and asked to connect with them. I like Wordsworth as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy, to be honest), but his work has its place. The canon of poetry is full of work like this. Work that is undeniably good, but which is so distant from the lives of the people who are reading it (often young people in schools who are being told that they have to read it) that it loses all its power, and even puts its audience off of poetry for good.
The problem is that academia is inherently exclusionary, its long history has been filled with ways in which it excluded others, and despite the work that has been done in recent years to make it more accessible there is still so much more to be done. From the failing schools and lower grades in traditionally poor or minority areas, right up to the universities which still boast marked class divides, exclusion pervades academia. Poetry suffers through this. As a working class poet with a burning desire to make poetry accessible, going to university and seeing the writing I love through the eyes of academia is startling.
There is a trend among academics to make things as complicated as possible, seemingly simply to make them more difficult for those who have not had a university education to understand. Articles are written in jargon, in sentences so convoluted and full of inferences and clauses that they are almost indecipherable. This trend has now begun to spread to poetry. Young academics, in particular, are writing poems that are specifically designed to be complicated. They are hard to read, hard to understand, and they completely miss the point of poetry. They are written with exclusion at their hearts. They reject everything poetry is, in favour of what they can quantify, in favour of what they have been taught. Their work is full of caesuras, and metonymy, iambs, metric feet, synecdoche, and enjambment, not because the work needs it, but because they think that this is what makes something ‘good’ poetry. They pack their work full of metaphors and arching themes, so focused on saying something big, that they do not realise they say nothing at all. Academia has become so fixated with the façade of poetry that it has lost its heart. This is where it fails, and where it begins to fail those who need poetry.
The things that have carried poetry through the centuries are not the things that are studied, the things that people these days are told make up poetry. The things that have carried poetry through the centuries are indefinable, intangible, and yet they are truly, truly real. I cannot tell you why my favourite poem is my favourite in any definable terms, I can only tell you through feelings. In much the same way, it is rare for someone to tell you that a song is their favourite because of the technical construction behind it (though, as a friend of someone with a music degree and a prog-rock obsession, I admit that it can happen).
We need to take a step back from this hyper-intellectual view of poetry that has begun to infect the literary world and appreciate it for what it engenders within us. Poetry, like most things, is more than the sum of its singular parts. We need to realise that. We need to stop looking at the building blocks, and appreciate the finished product. Most importantly, we need to ensure that the poetry found in schools more accurately reflects the young people studying it. When I did my A-Level in English Literature I was taught poetry about the life and experiences of a man growing up in rural Wales. Now, I’ve never seen a pig in my life. I’ve only ever seen a sheep from the window of a moving vehicle. The concepts raised in those poems were so far removed from my life and experiences that it was almost ridiculous. I’m a huge poetry nerd, so I managed, but seriously, would it have killed anyone to have put a poem that reflected my actual life in front of me in that classroom? No. It wouldn’t have.
We are truly privileged to be living in a time when an astonishing volume of phenomenal work is being created by such a diverse range of people. We need to make the most of this, and show people, particularly young people, that their voices can be heard in poetry. We need to show them their lives and experiences, reflected in verse, and we need to allow them to listen. People need to know that it is not a pipe-dream to become a poet, that it is not a matter of running away to join the circus, no matter what your background. People just need to be given a chance. To be given a voice.
This is a lightly edited and updated version of the original essay, which I wrote for the Pop-Up Blog in 2017