“It’s a dead art form.”
My brother used to say, back, back in the day when I started writing and performing. That was 17 years ago this autumn. HIs tongue was firmly in his cheek but there’s often a germ of truth to these kind of jokes
Truth is, poetry has been niche for a long time. It still is , but these days its much more vital, alive, present than when I began so long ago.
The effect of this rise of performance poetry in the consciousness in the UK and Ireland could be felt at Stendhal Festival this year. Stendhal is a small but very successful music and arts festival near Limavady in Northern Ireland. I was asked to curate the poetry for the festival. Despite a limit on crowd numbers due to Covid (about half the usual capacity) the poetry attracted more of an audience this year than previous years. Poetry/Spoken Word, however you frame it, is punching its weight these days.
Poetry exists in waves, I’ve seen the territory change a lot over the years but for me it gives a platform for proclaiming on stage experiences and confidences that we would feel too emotionally inhibited to say off stage.
There’s a famous quote from W. H. Auden that his poetry didn’t save one Jew from the gas chamber. That isn’t poetry’s brief. It does however, (as Seamus Heaney countered) give spiritual redress. Poetry can create an internal revolution. It, like all literature, shows us that we are not alone. It reflects us all with a battered mirror. It doesn’t lead, it doesn’t teach, it shows us our strengths, our failings, our tenderness, our condition in this world, and every context it is written into and of. Poetry reflects, it distils experiences. It consoles and excites. It can be throwaway, purely comedic or it can be food for the soul. It is, a broad church.
For me, and so many others Poetry is a therapy. As someone who’s work exists on both page and stage, there is an overlap between writing for self therapy and writing for others as well as writing for writing’s sake. If the writing for the self is done well enough it can reach others. There is a strong connection between poets and mental illness. There can be many reasons for this. One of them is that poetry can be great therapy, it can been done in short bursts, it requires no expensive equipment, it has no age limits or constraints, it can be written for self or for the wider public and often, both. It also deals with seasons, circular experiences, things that reflect the experiences of so many people suffering from mental illness. Kay Redfield Jamison (in her book Touched by Fire) argues Bi-Polarity and art go together like a hand in a glove. This is contested. No one can say for sure why so many poets have mental health issues, but the stats are impressive. It can be easy to romanticise mental illness. In reality it is not romantic in the slightest, but poetry can be a great way for many to express their internal weather systems. At times like this, with fake news, cultural dissonance, social fragmentation, we need poetry.
All in all, the Pandemic has been, I wouldn’t say good for performance poetry, that would be crass, but it has though worked well having being moved online the last year and change. Many poets have been published during the Pandemic and published poetry has been expressing itself during these interesting times. On Zoom performance poetry works better than music gigs etc. Through the internet the performances can ape the one to one connection between poet and audience member. There is now a global network of poets that have never met before, who now rub alongside each other several days a week. Gigs once based above a bar somewhere in England, for example, now have regulars beaming in from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. The world during Covid has shrunk and poets have been flagbearers for events that now connect folk far and wide on a global scale. The future for poetry events could well still include Zoom and international open mic performers and headliners online at live gigs.
Poetry is alive and well. As long as it keeps connecting hearts minds and souls, it will always be in great health.
Spread the Spoken Word.