In our rather frenetic and fractured lives, is poetry actually becoming a thing? A burgeoning creative trend. Even brands such as Coca Cola and Microsoft are beginning to use poetry to cut through the noise and grab viewers attention. Intelligence Squared hosted The Power of Poetry event in an attempt to celebrate the positive, transformative force of poetry. Poetry devotee Jeanette Winterson was reassuringly persuasive about how poetry can act as a balm to heal wounds by forging a connection with a stranger, who understands and offers you a helping hand and a sense of peace.
The panel consisted of William Sieghart, author of the book they were all plugging for charity called “The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried and True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul” and it’s a great place to start as a beginner. He has chosen a relatively small selection of poems that relate to different emotions. Every poem is matched to a specific condition: fear of the unknown, unrequited love, loneliness, oppression. It was the closest I’ve come to believing that perhaps I should give poetry a go. I’ve never really understood the power of poetry – it’s always felt too out of reach and not for the masses, as arguably the highest and most elitist of all the art forms.
The event was chaired by Sarah Montague, one of the main anchors on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and it was lovely to finally put a face to the voice. Jeanette Winterson, an author I love, read a number of poems out and discussed what poetry meant to her, as did the four performers: Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Burke, Jason Isaacs and Sue Perkins.
William Sieghart suggests poems should be read like prayers. Either out loud, or out loud in your head (how do you even do that?). He says they should be read daily over at least five days when you find one you like, read in different moods and times, to help unravel the layers. Or to build the layers, I’m not too sure. It was a brilliant cast of readers. Well known and diverse. Sue Perkins added a much needed element of comedy to ensure that none of us felt intimidated by the experience and the other three voices were just so rich, they certainly brought the poems to life.
Helena’s first poem was very simple and went like this:-
By Adrian Mitchell
When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on
Jeanette Winterson was the most glorious to listen to, her words rich and evocative. She has used poetry to get her through some dark times and believes that the more you can learn off by heart to keep the poems inside of you, the more they belong to you. “We are carbon bodies in a silicon world” she said and poetry is a tonic that can help keep us grounded as she described poems that can stop “everyone rewriting the past into their discordant present”. They all discussed how poems can often be outlets for otherwise unbearable emotions.
William Sieghart described poems that resonated as allowing you to feel as if the author of the poem was reaching their hand out to yours, despite the fact it might have possibly been penned 400 years ago. Maybe therefore, as Jeanette says, it’s better than any self-help book on that basis, once you’ve embraced and begun to understand the powerful meaning of the words. Together they explored poetry’s ability to calm, console and above all connect us to the minds and feelings of others. “Finding the right poem at the right moment is not just a problem shared, but a problem transormed” says Sieghart. It makes you feel like you’re not the only one who feels that way.
It wasn’t until the end of the session that an audience member asked the panel to explain what a poem actually was, which was probably something they should have addressed at the beginning. I thought it was simply down to being able to do what you want with the length of the line, unlike prose which goes to the end of the page, but this wasn’t mentioned. What they said instead was that a poem manages to create a complete entity that exists within it’s own bubble. It is language that is distilled to be as tight as possible, concentrated and exact for the emotions that it is trying to convey, with no extraneous words and it should manage to express what often we can’t. In other words, “a poem should not mean, but be.”
The dictionary definition of “poem” is “a piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm and imagery.”
In our social media driven world, where most of us are under the illusion that we have lots of friends and can talk to people all the time, loneliness has become a big issue. The panel were suggesting that poetry can help with this and help us concentrate, stay present and remain grounded, despite the threat of the “P” word getting in the way.
Education, they say could be better in terms of inspiring children to enjoy poetry. They suggest making it less prescriptive and more enjoyable. Offer a wider range of poems from silly ones to funny ones and include rap songs. Grime rap is the hottest thing in the music industry right now, having now gone mainstream and kids relate to those songs. The poetry and inner rhythms in the songs are extraordinary (sometimes). I’ve heard a few incredibly good ones – by rappers like Stormzy and Dave, but mostly my son plays songs that consist of drugs, sex and violence and not in a poetic way. William’s Sieghart’s book would be a logical start for children as assigning a poem to a particular state of mind makes total sense and is a more relevant way for children to learn how to relate to poetry.
They saved one of my favourite John Donne poems till last – a timeless message for tolerance, Brexit and immigration:-
‘No Man is an Island’
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.