Yvette Huddleston: World Poetry Day shows how verse can provide perspective in troubled times

Poet Helen Mort relaxing at home in Chesterfield
Poet Helen Mort relaxing at home in Chesterfield
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Yesterday was World Poetry Day, a day initiated by the United Nations in 1999 to recognise and celebrate ‘the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind’.

Falling on March 21 every year, it provides an opportunity to pay tribute to poets from all the over the world – historical or living – and to celebrate the reading, writing and appreciation of poetry. It is an art form that perhaps more than most reminds us of our common humanity, enabling us to better understand each other by distilling human emotion and experience into a few carefully chosen words. Lyric poetry deals with the big themes – love, sex, life, death – all of which cross any perceived boundaries to speak to everyone. The visionary American writer James Baldwin was right when he said ‘the poets... are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t... only poets.’

With that in mind, it has been interesting to note that last year the sales of poetry collections reached a record high. According to statistics from the UK books sales monitor Nielsen BookScan sales grew by just over 12 per cent in 2018 with 1.3million volumes of poetry sold, adding up to £12.3m. A significant proportion of those those buying poetry – roughly two thirds – were under the age of 34 and 41 per cent were aged 13 to 22, with young women shown to be the biggest consumers. The ease with which poetry can be accessed and shared online has led to a younger, more diverse readership which can only be a good thing and appears to have also translated into book sales. Live spoken word events are becoming increasingly popular. Pretty much any day of the week, across Yorkshire you can find a venue where poets will be sharing their work (and there is usually an open mic session for others who want to have a go) and here young women too are making their voices heard with outstanding contributions from local poets such as Kirsty Taylor from Bradford, Wakefield’s Laura Potts and Sheffield-born Helen Mort to name just three.

The fact that poetry can bring great solace in turbulent times could well be a factor in the rise in consumption – and I think we can all agree the past few years have been troubling, to say the least. Poems can cut across the excessive verbiage of political discourse and get to the essence of an issue. And who can blame anyone seeking a bit of clarity in a poem when in the UK we’ve had to endure at least two years of seemingly endless speeches, that are at best meaningless and at worst divisive, from a succession of politicians who appear to have no-one’s interests at heart apart from their own. Apparently there was a similiar increase in the popularity of poetry during the mid-1980s miners’ strike...

Poems can’t solve the difficulties we currently face, but they can provide a sense of perspective.