Since 1994, our rainy island nation has set aside the otherwise dreary first Thursday of October every year to celebrate an art form that writers have begged, borrowed, stolen, manipulated, warped and loved since before being “British” was even a thing: the poem. From the moment Homer set down his Iliad, poetry has been firmly entwined with the concept of nationhood and identity – whether in the attempt of preservation or dissolution of border constructs – so with the enormous political shifts which have already have and continue to quake 2016, I can’t help but feel that this year National Poetry Day is more important than ever.
The power of poetry is that it is universal and touches everything and at the same time it is intimate and only speaks to you.
The theme, “Messages”, is perhaps the most malleable, open-ended centre of organisation a national event could possibly have. Surely all writing is a kind of message; from the plays of Shakespeare to my weekly food shop list, everything ever put down on paper was intended to remind someone of something. But the event’s tagline, “Say It With a Poem”, reminds us literary types of the general social disillusionment and suspicion which lingers in poetry’s wake. I’m always reminded of the “The curtains were fucking blue” meme about author intentionality (if you don’t know what I’m on about, google it; I’m told by my less geeky friends it’s the perfect summary of their English GCSE experience); not many people are interested in messages with hidden layers – but do we really have a choice today?
I can’t help but feel that this year National Poetry Day is more important than ever.
The power of poetry is that it is universal and touches everything and at the same time it is intimate and only speaks to you. Gods, family, death, love, sex, power, sickness, wealth, war; nothing is above the reproach of poetry. In a time when socio-political catastrophes rain upon the earth with the dispassionate vengeance of volcanic, explosive tectonic shifts, when cruelty and fear and prejudice grip the human race, poetry is essential. Art is where people go to find reason, even beauty, in their rage, their grief and their terror, and poetry allows us to talk about twisted, contorted things in a twisted, contorted way which still has the power to heal.
How do you talk about the bodies of babies washed up on beaches because there was no safe way to the possibility of a better life? How can we find words to show how we feel about people being shot dead for having the wrong pigmentations in their skin? How might you describe the lawful, forced undressing of a human being by armed officers on a beach? How could you verbalise the realisation that someone who sees maternity leave as an inconvenience to business and whole nations of people as an inconvenience to the world could soon be the most powerful man in it? If you can’t answer these questions this October, try to say it with a poem. The force which forged cultural boundaries deeper than any line on any map might just be the best way to heal humanity’s self-inflicted scars.