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Is poetry rising from its slumber?

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“Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty” –  Andre Breedt, Nielsen Book Research.


It was World Poetry Day recently. I missed it. I expect most did, too. For the record it was March 21. Put that in your diary for next year.

In a marvellous example of polar extremes, the honouring of such a form of expression was cast in a turgid framework of words as if to remove all life from it.

World Poetry Day came into the world in 1999 at the general conference of UNESCO.

This is, in part, what was decided:

The General Conference,

Having  considered  document  30  C/82,  on  the  proclamation  of  21  March  as  World  Poetry  Day,  together with the Executive Board’s decision on the subject (157 EX/Decision 3.4.2),

Endorsing the recommendations of the ad hoc meeting the conclusions of which are set out in document 157 EX/9 and which, following a detailed analysis of the state of poetry as the century draws to a close, regarded the proclamation of a day for poetry with satisfaction and enthusiasm,

Convinced that the initiative to hold a worldwide event in support of poetry would give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements,

Mindful   that   this   event,   which   responds   to   aesthetic   needs   in   the   present-day   world,   must have repercussions on the promotion of linguistic diversity, since through poetry endangered languages will have greater opportunities to express themselves within their respective communities,

Mindful also  that  a  societal  movement  towards  the  recognition  of  ancestral  values  entails  a  return  to  theoral  tradition  and  acceptance  of  language  as  a  factor  contributing  to  the  socialization  and structuring  of  the  human  individual, 

And  that  such  a  movement,  which  could  help  the  young  to rediscover basic values, enables them to come face to face with themselves,

Recalling that, since poetry is an art rooted both in the written text and in the spoken word, any action to promote it should be conducive to an intensification of international intercultural exchanges,

Proclaims 21 March as World Poetry Day.   

It goes on, but really life is too short. 

Fair play, however, to the good officers of the poetry branch of UNESCO. It’s because of them that poetry now has an official day around the globe. It’s important.

To the vast majority of people, poetry flies below the radar in rarefied air. It is the niche product for the soul when for most the niche is undiscovered, and thus not needed. Life goes on, quite well, without it. It is not intrinsic to the working day.

But. There is a thread.

Dreaming with eyes open.

Speaking words unspoken.

Poetry goes deep into life, into lives. It strikes like a bell to resonate within, it falls like a tossed stone into a pond that sends ripples over the surface and remains at bottom. It is the word of others, uttered for you. It is the universal articulation. It is the bond.

There may be something happening here, and really no one knows what it is, but there is a whispering in the digitally lit world: poetry is alright.

Twenty years after the UN proclamation, it appears that in certain regions poetry is soaring up the charts. Just last January, it was reported that sales of poetry books in Britain grew by more than 10 per cent in 2018. More than 1 million books. Most of the sales were to people under 35.

The Guardian quoted Andre Breedt, for Nielsen Book Research: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”

This dovetailed with a report from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US that revealed the number of “poetry readers” had doubled in the five years from 2012 to 2017 to almost 12 per cent.

It’s an astonishing turnaround from early this century when The Washington Post suggested, based on sales, that poetry was trending towards the grave.

Some commentators believe the rise of social media has been a factor. Poets now have multiple platforms to share their words, and the distribution of those words is instant and global. Words on a page are now no longer the only stage; now the world is their stage. 

All creatures eat, drink, are born, die and decompose. Only humans compose. 

As UNESCO says, “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.”

So, here belatedly, is a toast to World Poetry Day. Here’s to some of my friends on the bookshelves beside me: Rainer Maria Rilke, WB Yeats, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska (pictured above), Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and TS Eliot. And to some of the songwriters who put poetry to song: Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell and Shane Howard.

Blessed am I to be able to drink in their poetry.

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