What is poetry's societal function?
What is the role of poetry and what does it have to do with society?
What is the role of poetry and what does it have to do with society? Poetry has great societal value because in times of need, whether that be commiseration, celebration, an obituary, to mark a particular life event; poems are there to connect us through their visceral living art form. Despite its long standing identity, poetry has somewhat of a flaky reputation. It can be perceived as a benign relic that belongs to the world of Keats and Rossetti and an art form that has less relevance amongst the rising reduction of words, like Twitterature.
Akin to other art forms such as a painting and music, poetry is sustenance. We need poetry to feel, to form an opinion, to understand culture, to connect with others, to critique, to know ourselves. Poetry is a reflection of the human experience that enables us to see ourselves and our experiences more clearly. Poetry is a portal into ourselves. As Walt Whitman says in ‘Leaves of Grass’, ‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’. Poetry is the intertwined human experience and our lives are poetry in motion; we are all moving, breathing, talking poetry. Poetry is about our past, our present and our future and we need it to understand ourselves and each other better. It is the roadmap of being human.
Which poems have significant societal impact?
Still I Rise- Maya Angelou
In a 2008 interview, Angelou said ‘’You know, if you’re lonely you feel you’ve been done down, it’s nice to have ‘And Still I Rise’’. And how on the mark she is. Still I Rise, a poem about rising up against oppression and prejudice, specifically against anti-black racism in America. Angelou experienced trauma early in her childhood and as a coping mechanism became mute for a period of time where she turned to the pen and consequently poetry. Still I Rise will always be part of our vernacular of survival and overcoming all kinds of personal and societal hardships. Angelou’s poem will remain a universal mantra for when the human spirit is flailing and needs reminding of our power against the hardships we will inevitably face.
All- Benjamin Zephaniah
I once attended a poetry night in an old church in Islington, mainly because Benjamin Zephaniah was performing. In his Zephaniah style, he was flawless; his slick, rhythmic, dancing way with words, reeled out of him so effortlessly yet, with so much punch. In the Q&A, I asked him something to this tune, ‘I’m a teacher and I find it hard to connect students to poetry’. Zephaniah, smiling up with open palms ready to be the supporting act to his words, replied with
‘make them see the music in poetry, ask them to find their favourite song or rap, and find the music in both that and the poem, poetry is song and kids like songs’. Poetry and music. And this is what he does best, fuse poetry and music together to create rhythmic poetry like no other. His lyrical poetry talks about everything from politics, money, education, racism, austerity- he is the voice of anti-establishment and awakens us all to the society we live in, not the one we think we live in. It is a challenge to pick the most impactful Zephaniah work because of how important they are for social change. My advice, pour yourself into Zephaniah and let his rhythms take you both into and out of yourself. Zephaniah will always be part of British culture, though he has ostensibly left the UK and now moves around the globe living out his mission- to take poetry everywhere. What could be more poetically socially impactful than that?
Hold Your Own- Kate Tempest
In a recent declaration of Kae Tempest changing their pronouns from she/her, to they/their, stating that they had been struggling with their identity. It seemed so fitting to be presented with this message as soon as you step into Kae’s web domain and so like their poetry, is brazenly bold and refreshingly honest. Kae cuts through all writing conventions and is an astounding lyricist who speaks the naked truth on all subjects. Their spider-web of words become a hypnotic dance and transfix you into their fusion of poetry and music, making Kae Tempest a hybrid poet. Kae Tempest has revived poetry into a spoken word art form, showing that poetry has a multitude of identities in its multi-rhythmic language. Kae Tempest is an important artist of our time because they are as raw as they come and they challenge our perceptions. We need people to speak rawly because there is so much that we brush under the carpet, so much that we stonewall at, so much that we shy away from, that we need the nakedness of Kae Tempest and their creative poetry to be part of the change we want to see. Their performance at Glastonbury 2015 of ‘Hold Your Own’ was a gift to all witnesses that were suspended in her spoken word artistry. The fact that they were able to be on stage and share their poetry at a music festival also speaks for itself in how poetry has become more globalised and less localised, a sign of our times that poetry is a unifier.
Sonnet 116- Shakespeare
Shakespeare cannot not be part of the conversation. He is still so widely used and referenced today and even the kids I used to teach who wouldn’t admit to liking Shakespeare, found themselves lapping it up. It is not my place to say which of Shakespeare’s poems are best but Sonnet 116 is a personal favourite. Sonnet 116 is so raw and true that he gets the feeling of love coursing through your veins. Lasting poetry will make you swell with all the things you know and feel, and not just pass you by with a mild fragrance, but knock you over with its powerful scent. Take for example, ‘love alters not with his brief hours and weeks / but bears it out even to the edge of doom.’ Shakespeare so exquisitely describes the power of how true, unwavering love, will last despite life’s lulls and tragedies that can indeed test you and push you ‘to the edge of doom’. Sonnet 116 almost defines love and people will return to the topic of love time and time again.
This is the Place- Tony Walsh
On May 22nd 2017, an attack at Manchester arena was carried out by a suicide bomber, killing 23 people and wounding 800. When a national tragedy occurs and there is a national funeral, the right words need to be spoken for the people and their pain. Poetry is the ideal remedy for this because it can speak to people’s pain when they may not be able to articulate it themselves. This is the Place serves as a symbol for the people of Manchester to mourn the dead and grieve together. Tony Walsh, locally known as Longfella, was able to speak to the people of Manchester through his poem and let the city’s grief come together. His poem provided an antithesis to the hateful act and reminded the people of Manchester of their strength, their Mancunian identity and their love for fellow Mancunians. This is the Place will always be a gift to the people of Manchester and undoubtedly, something they will turn to when they need to be reminded of what it is to be from Manchester, and to remember those that died in the 2017 attack.
In Flanders Field- John McCrae
McCrae’s poem commemorates the soldiers of World War I and plays an important role as it is recited on Remembrance Day to pay homage to the fallen soldiers. The poem encapsulates the bloodshed and suffering of these men and is now synonymous with red poppies because they grew over their graves. Hence why today, poppies are sold to honour the soldiers of World War I. McCrae’s poem has permeated through time and has been an expression of collective mourning where we stop to acknowledge what these men went through. The fact that his poem can collectivise people and their grief is an extremely powerful outcome of what he intended to be a personal tribute for the friend he served with. Similarly to This is the Place, there are times when people need to be brought together through poetry and feel they are mourning together. The power of words has the ability to remind us of our fragility, life’s fragility and how precious our every day is. Little did McCrae know that his poem would be recited annually today and given such significance to the poppy.
Grenfell Tower- Ben Okri
Many of us love and appreciate London for the city it is, but it has its many flaws and sadly life here is difficult for many people. The event of Grenfell illuminated the issues of inequality, austerity and social justice in Britain and devastatingly, Grenfell Tower was an example of how these issues are deeply ingrained in our society. The tragedy fuelled frustrations and the aftermath of Grenfell is still felt and seen today; the charcoal building is now a place of mourning with streams of flowers skirting it, messages around the city paying homage to the victims, signs in windows; Grenfell remains in the minds and hearts of Londoners. Ben Okri, poet, novelist, essayist and playwright, wrote an impassioned eulogy for the victims of the fire. Okri did not shy away from depicting the event in its full horror to emulate the nightmare it was, ‘You saw it past the posters of those who jumped their deaths’ (giving a spooky likeness to those that jumped at the Twin Towers), ‘You heard it in the cries in the air howling for justice’, If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower’. I won’t go on, but the eulogy is full of brutally honest lines because Okri, like many other Londoners, wants to honour the victims of Grenfell and highlight that lack of justice for these people and their families. Okri’s eulogy and its message continues to pulsate with its harrowing lines and captures the social inequalities of our time and how the failure of governments and their faulty provision of care can actually lead to matters of life and death. Grenfell will always hurt and Okri’s poem is a reminder of how we will remember those that died and the social issues that lead us to the event.
If- Rudyard Kipling
If is an incredibly powerful modal verb. We use the word in our everyday vernacular. Whether it’s weighing up if we go to the gym in the morning or afternoon, so we can get X and Y done, or if we should accept that job offer; for such a small word, it has mighty connotations. Rudyard Kipling capitalised on this in his poem, where he explores various possibilities of ‘If’, such as ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you’. In fact, the poem’s line ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same’, is written on the wall of the players’ entrance at Wimbledon. There is strong moralistic value in Kipling’s poem that seeks to reassure the human spirit and soul at life’s testing junctures and having timeless relevance for the human spirit. The poem was first published in his collection of children’s stories, Rewards and Fairies, which can help us to understand how moralistic the poem is intended to be, in acting as a guide for our own set of rules in growing up and staying true to our own values.
She Must Be Mad- Charley Cox
Charley Cox is a London poet who openly writes about her own experience with mental health and leans into issues pertaining to women. The London poet is open about living with bi-polar which has been the thematic backdrop for much of her writing. Her coming of age experiences have been relatable to many women as well as discussing her relationship with her body and mental health. In January 2018, she posted a poem a day on her Instagram and she quickly gathered a large audience. Her poetry and prose collection She Must Be Mad frankly speaks of her trouble around mental health and has consequently been a highly successful book. The book explores the coming-of-age journey from girl to woman and is a powerful read for women as many can relate to this period of transition and all its complexities, as well as the conversation around mental health that promotes the need for issues around mental health to be destigmatized. Cox’s work has a firm place in today’s society in which women are trying to survive and succeed as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts. Cox is a poet who through the openness of her own experience and identity as a woman, is uniting women more closely one poem at a time.
Rising/established poets to watch:
- Arlo Parks
- Luke Wright
- George the Poet
- Solomon O.B
- Caroline Teague
- Toria Garbutt
- Jay Bernard
- Theresa Lola