Yvette Huddleston: Poetry can tell the truth in an age of fear and uncertainty

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. (PA).
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. (PA).
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A couple of weeks ago the shortlist for this year’s T S Eliot Prize for Poetry was announced.

It is reportedly one of the most political lists for a long time (small wonder, given the turbulent times we are living through) and the ten shortlisted collections include American poet Terrance Hayes’ sonnets written in response to the first 200 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Sean O’Brien’s poems about England’s relationship with its European neighbours and Nick Laird’s poetry which considers themes such as Grenfell Tower and the refugee crisis.

The succinct power of poetry contrasts with the endless long, largely meaningless, speeches made by politicians that do little to clarify dire situations such as the looming Brexit disaster and the barely coherent, vile Twitter rants emanating from the never-ending toddler tantrum in the White House have debased the English language to such an extent that poetry is one of the few places where we can still find clarity, purity and reason.

As one of the judges Clare Pollard, who was joined on the judging panel by fellow poets Daljit Nagra and Sinead Morrissey, said of the shortlist: “It’s an intensely political list and right now it needs to be”, adding: “Poetry’s ability to engage with language... when there are so many lies and so much fake news, its ability to look at the discourse around us, is so important.”

We are probably closer than we have been to a nuclear war than at any time since the height of the Cold War (sorry to be so gloomy, but, you know, these things need to be said) and we are slowly destroying the planet we all share, while people in positions of power who should know better continue to deny climate change. Poetry can cut to the chase on such weighty issues providing an intense nugget of distilled emotion or an apposite piece of fearless truth-telling.

I was moved to tears reading poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poignant new poem The Wound in Time, which was published last week , commissioned by director Danny Boyle to be read as part of his commemoration for Armistice Day, Pages of the Sea, taking place on beaches in the UK and Ireland on November 11.

Poetry of course played such a significant part in the First World War – reporting on the brutal reality of what was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. Duffy’s poem refers to the terrible losses in that conflict and draws to a close with these incredibly moving lines: “What happened next?/War. And after that? War. And now? War. War./History might as well be water, chastising this shore;/for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.” Well, exactly. The one thing history has taught us is that we never learn anything from it. Maybe we should look to poetry for lessons instead...