Hands up who was completely blown away by the power of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman as she read her poem, The Hill We Climb, on the US Capitol last week.
We’re used to hearing poetry during the big moments in life – from births to deaths to marriages – and they don’t get much bigger than a presidential inauguration, Judith Palmer, director of The Poetry Society, tells HuffPost UK.
“Amanda wasn’t just reading a text. She was performing it. She was there at this huge moment in history, saying: here’s something I’ve written,” says Palmer. “She wanted to communicate – a message of hope and a recognition of where we are right now, where we have been and where we might go in the future.”
And that’s what poetry can give us in the big – and small – moments, Palmer adds, and why she’s not surprised so many people, especially young people of colour, are writing poems that are setting the world alight at the moment.
Poetry can help us understand our place in the world and how we feel about it.
Take Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet, who, just a day after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during Black Lives Matters protests in June, released her extraordinary poem, Hollow on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
“Vanessa has such energy and maturity,” says Palmer, who first met Kisuule at creative writing workshops in her teens and praises her wisdom, hard work and immediacy. “Poetry is an art form that can be responding to quickly changing circumstances. And now you can self-publish and put it out on the internet.”
If you didn’t get the poetry bug in English class at school, know it’s never too late to pick up – and here are some tips from Palmer to get you going.
Poems are there for the taking
Poetry is published in anthologies, collections and magazines; performed and recorded live and online; and shared more widely than ever before on social media – especially by young writers.
“If you’ve never really got into poetry, there’s always one thing I say: start with an anthology,” says Palmer. “This is where an editor has chosen lots of poems by lots of different people. It’s a great way to begin – flick through to find ones you like, then maybe buy a collection by one of the poets you’ve come across.”
Palmer recommends the bestselling Staying Alive series published by Bloodaxe – Staying Alive, Being Alive, Being Human – and she’s not alone (it has plenty of celebrity fans, too). The books are packed full of amazing poems about life, love, death, nature and joy – by writers old and new from all over the world. The most recent, Staying Human, includes poems written during the pandemic.
Poetry is portable
“One of the great things about poetry is that it’s a really portable art form,” says Palmer. “You can slip a book in your pocket (at least, in the days we used to go places) and it’s also great for a journey where you are getting on and off.”
Add poems to your playlists. Download a podcast. Though for some people, it will always be about the joy of turning pages, Palmer says.
“A poem is something you can return to and read the same lines again and again, unlike a novel where maybe you can lose your thread. And with a poetry book, you can pick it up at the back, start at the beginning or dive into the middle.” There really aren’t any rules. Find a way of reading that suits you.
Think of it like music
Not really connecting to a poem or poet? Don’t force it. “Just as there are lots of different kinds of music for different moods, there are lots of different kinds of poetry, too,” says Palmer. “If you don’t like one thing, try something else.”
Find what – or who – speaks to you, then pursue the trail. Social media can be useful for this. Follow writers you enjoy and they’ll help you discover others. Yrsa Daley-Ward has a huge following on Instagram, while poet and teacher Kate Clanchy uses Twitter to share her teenage students’ work – it’s brilliant!
Poetry in small doses
“People have got back into pamphlets lately,” says Palmer. “These are like a really short book, which might have only 16 or 24 pages, with poems all on a subject – for example, Ella Frears’ poems on motorway service stations.”
Yes, really. The young British poet took a road trip from Cornwall (where she was born) to London (where she now lives), stopping at every service station – and two Travelodges – en route. Poetry doesn’t have to be about daffodils.
Candlestick Press publishes beautifully designed pamphlets in envelopes, with the tagline “instead of a card”. Each contains 10 poems on a particular theme: winter, love, mothers, cats, dogs, breakfast or happiness, for example. Send one to a friend or treat yourself.
Don’t just read it, write it
It sounds obvious, but another way of getting into poetry is writing your own. “Lots of people like writing poetry when they try it,” says Palmer. “They find they want to have the platform and a voice. In normal times, there are lots of open mic sessions where you can go and hear other people read their work – and read yours. But you can also find groups that you can start writing with online.”
For those under 25, The Poetry Society runs the Young Poets’ Network, with year-round free activities and monthly suggestions for things to write about. There are also plenty of poetry competitions for poets of all ages to enter, often with paid prizes and the chance to be published to a wider readership.
“It’s a good way to write a poem because a competition gives you a deadline,” says Palmer. “Sometimes you jot down a few lines and never take it anywhere. How about you write two lines, then see if you can think of a third, a fourth and a fifth? Maybe you win. Maybe you don’t. But it made you finish your poem.”
And remember Amanda Gorman: “The only approval you need is your own.”
This new year, we focus on fun, not denial (because we’ve all had enough of that). Follow our month-long plan, with a new ‘Here, Try This’ idea each day, spanning easy ways to engage your body and mind, inspiration for your food and home, and tips for boosting how you feel – inside and out.