Reading between the lines, poetry is alive and kicking

Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes
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Today is World Poetry Day but will anyone notice? Chris Bond asks whether poetry still matters and if we still listen to poets and what they have to say?

MOST people recognise today as the start of Spring, but it also happens to be World Poetry Day.

This might not mean much to some of you and others might not care, but it’s the day Unesco adopted back in 1999 to celebrate the importance of poetry to our cultural life over the centuries.

Poetry certainly has a rich history. From Homer’s epics the Iliad and the Odyssey through to Shakespeare’s sonnets, Milton’s Paradise Lost and the work of Romantics like Shelley and Keats, poetry not only has the power to move us, but to shape our language and even the way we think.

It would be almost impossible for instance, in this centenary year, to properly discuss the First World War without talking about the likes of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen 
and Sigfried Sassoon. It was a poem, too, In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian surgeon John McCrae, that led to the poppy becoming a lasting symbol not only of those killed 
during the Great War, but all subsequent conflicts.

But while poetry is something we all remember, some would say endured, from our school days it’s often associated with the past.

Most poets today struggle to get acknowledged and their discreet, slim volumes don’t come close to troubling the best-seller lists amid the clamour for crime fiction and cookery books, no matter how great the critical acclaim.

Poetry frequently seen as old-fashioned but Antony Dunn, a poet and director of the annual Bridlington Poetry Festival, is in no doubt about its continuing relevance to our lives today. “If you think about it poetry is still a big part of many people’s lives than we might assume. They turn to if in difficult and in happy times.

“Barely a wedding or a funeral takes place without a poem being read and they’re not dusty old poems, they’re usually ones that have been written today.”

He points to the resurgence of performance poetry in Britain. “This was big back in the 1960s and although it possibly died down a bit in the decades in between it’s definitely on the up. You just have to look at Kate Tempest who filled the Quarry Theatre at West Yorkshire Playhouse for two nights in a row last month. That’s astonishing for a performance poet and it shows the huge appetite there is for this kind of thing.”

Even so, poetry has always suffered from something of an image problem. A few years back in a desperate, albeit understandable, bid to make it sound cool it was dubbed the “new rock ‘n’ roll”. Except it wasn’t really.

Too many people either say poetry’s “not for them” or think it’s boring. But Dunn believes there’s a new breed of writers like Leeds Young Authors who are helping bring poetry to a wider, and younger, audience. “Leeds Young Authors are at the heart of what’s going on in our region and they’re exciting to watch” he says.

“It’s difficult for a 15 year-old to open a book of poems and think it’s cool but they can go and watch the Leeds Young Authors up on stage and think ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

Yorkshire has, of course, produced some of the finest poets ever to put pen to paper, including Ted Hughes, WH Auden, Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage, while Philip Larkin famously plumped for a life in Hull.

These literary roots are perhaps one of the reasons why a seaside town like Bridlington can sustain a poetry festival, now in its fifth year, which suggests that poetry is actually alive and well.

Dunn believes that poetry doesn’t always have to be serious and points to the popularity of people like Wendy Cope, Roger McGough and the “Bard of Barnsley” Ian McMillan. “Anyone who’s sat down for five minutes with Ian McMillan knows that poetry can be fun and that it really dosesn’t have to be dry and dusty.”