"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Now, this may sound like a description of *that* fateful exchange between a Samurai sword laden Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, but it in fact Emily Dickinson's appreciation of what poetry is and what it can do - a power so affective it feels as though you'd be able to feel a breeze blow through your head...
While this is just one interpretation of what poetry is and how it can make you feel, it nonetheless holds a great deal of weight. Reading poetry, writing poetry, performing poetry are not just physical matters of speaking and reading words but instead capture and then release the emotion and physicality of empathy, understanding and appreciation that spine tingles and other bodily cliches can only just draw upon.
I've always defended poetry. Mainly because I always felt it needed defending. Opting for John Clare's melancholic poems of solitude and pain always seemed to lose out to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights (though I do adore both) at school and at university. And there was just something refreshing and raw in an emotionally charged poem comprised of 12 lines that a detail-obsessive could really grapple with.
Since I was a school girl with a love of words and a greater love of sentiment and strong writing, poetry and I just seemed to fit. As Stephen Burt said in his Ted talk, "poetry isn't one thing that serves one purpose any more than music or computer programming serve one purpose. The Greek word poem, it just means 'a made thing', and poetry is a set of techniques, ways of making patterns that put emotions into words. The more techniques you know, the more things you can make, and the more patterns you can recognise in things you might already like or love." And he's absolutely right. For me, poetry is a thing of beauty; where the patterns of composition are boundless, and as Kay Syrad said at Southbank's Women Poets for the Planet event in March 2016, "poetry isn't always about how loudly you say something, but sometimes how quietly" - something I hadn't considered beforehand.
When you're growing up and facing difficult times at school or stressful events brought on by puberty *Googles how to hide a ginormous spot*, finding an outlet to creatively pour out your confusion and tangled web of emotions is a welcomed breath of fresh air. Good friends of mine resorted to dance, others music, and I was always drawn back to the comfort of words. There's something really serene and magical about feeling better after writing down some words, without a restrictive metre, resulting in a sense of calm and still. It's like drinking a bottle of vodka without the hangover and "oh god, WHO did I text this time?" regret. That's why I have needed, and will continue to need, poetry.
But it's not just writing poetry that can bring something to your life, reading it can also be a tranquil and cathartic process, depending on what sort of poetry you're feasting your eyes on. If you're a sentimental and emotion-led like me, you'll probably love Romanticism and Victorian literature; a culmination of nature, questionable existence and sense of self and broken identity embodied by Browning's dramatic monologues or Wordsworth's fragments. Poetry, of course, like any form of expression, doesn't just have to be about subliminal feelings of elation. It can embody rawness, emotional disturbance, heightened confusion, and jarring reality. All captured in a controlled and carefully penned form. I need poetry because poetry needs us. To breathe life into it by reading it aloud, discussing, educating, appreciating, and living it.
Poetry to me isn't just some words on a page. It's human understanding and emotion, and reason... written down to be enjoyed by many.
When you're feeling overwhelmed or sad, it's incredibly easy to feel alone in this, and think that no one else would ever understand. But what I've found in poetry is that these very emotions and confused states of being you thought were so unusual and isolated to you, have been in fact the topic of address for many decades, and probably will continue to be so. There's something incredibly comforting in that. Like a warm hug or an outstretched hand. Because while we encounter grief, death, love, loss, happiness, sadness, and sheer elation or gruelling terror, I'm certain there's a poem out there already that tries to address and digest the same thing.
In a world so busy, frantic and driven, (especially if you live in a city), feeling like you're alone can become a startling familiarity. Poetry, for me, is like a familiar smell or a song you used to love years ago... something that can instantaneously bring you back to you, in a moment of uncertainty and confusion. There are poems I read from my GCSE English Literature syllabus that still leave me choked up when I read them today. Rossetti's Remember being one of them. And I think that's because the feeling I get when I read those 14 lines now as a 24-year-old digital marketing bod with an MA in poetry completely echo the feeling I had when I first read it as a nostalgic and self-conscious 15-year-old trying to do too much at school.
Just like hearing Teenage Dirtbag or Stacey's Mom and being transported back to that greasy haired wannabee emo who had no time for Westlife (when in fact you knew every harmony and idolised their long white jackets), poetry can propel you back in time, or throw you into pondering what the future will bring.
A mutual love of poetry and its power is what introduced me to writer, journalist and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly, so it was only right that I asked her why it is poetry matters to her; "It's no exaggeration to say that poetry is quite literally a lifeline for me when facing the black dog of depression. A healing line can change the story in my head and make me feel less alone. It roots me in the present and stops me regretting the past and worrying about the future."
Poetry can help with any uneasiness when thinking about the past or anxiety when over-thinking about the present and the future. It can act as a reminder that you're not alone in what you may be feeling right now and I personally need poetry because it reminds me of the person I want to get back to.
Poetry in its variety of forms and controlled or fluid construction transcends just being words on a page because for so many it is a life force. And in a world so full of change and disorder, a constant need for poetry brings a great deal of comfort.
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