The Restorative Power of Poetry – An Ode to World Poetry Day

The Restorative Power of Poetry – An Ode to World Poetry Day

”Why do we have to study poetry anyway?” is probably the most frequently asked question in my English classroom, usually accompanied by a tone of exasperation. It is the question which has the tendency to set me off on a spirited defence of what, to me, is the purest and most engaging art-form. I do this generally ignoring the irony in trying to instil a personal appreciation of the power of poetry, whilst asking them to look past the fact that it is, alas, mandatory. They must see that the poets can on occasion be at once their therapist, their forgiver, or at the very least their personal guide to help them traverse the emotional minefield that is adolescence, right?

The uncertainty of the current surreal times, has me and perhaps all of us feeling a bit like an adolescent; overbearingly elated and excited the one minute, downcast and reflective the next. Quite how we got here is anybody’s guess. Prior to this, a weekend at home going nowhere was to be relished, well when you get to my age anyhow, but now it feels troubling or oppressive at certain times. Teachers are not designed to be behind a screen. The amount of interactions I had on a daily basis, and will again please God, is not something I noticed. However, clearly it’s something that restored me day by day. Video-conferencing has certainly helped maintain this connection but it is just not quite the same, as we all know.

When I go to buy the milk, I am far more talkative than before, or indeed more than anyone needs to be when purchasing a bit of dairy. I feel quite like the pensioner going to the post office for the chat rather than the transaction, disappointed when it’s completed with the journey home already begun. Thankfully I have a companion that is with me throughout; the spoken (or sung) word. Nirvana have climbed up my list of most played songs yet again, as have others who have a confessional aspect to their songwriting. Kurt Cobain, like poets such as Sylvia Plath or indeed Robert Frost, had a way of constructing words in such a way that you felt they were speaking solely to you, you alone. How privileged they have made me feel.

Much like the realisation that I may have undervalued our daily interactions and how good they are for the soul, I may have also taken our poets and songwriters for granted. How lucky are we to have these people turn their pain, suffering, joy into perfectly sculpted words that allow us to grab on for dear life? They are the true torchbearers for our humanity.

In the days prior to Covid-19, which seem millennia ago now, we were becoming more and more fragmented by the day. Daily news bulletins served to highlight just how inane our world was truly becoming. People voted for those that would help their blind self-interest govern, with rarely a jot of introspection. Whilst this world has always been permeated with hope and goodness, those streams were becoming harder to decipher, as self-righteous fury seemed to obscure all.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly created a world of fear and hurt, suffering and pain. Yet, with the majority of governments opting to protect people first, then economies, it is clear the world we navigate is changing utterly beneath our feet. One thing that won’t change, however, is the central role our poets and songwriters play in helping us to make sense of this world, and our own. It was ever thus. It is no coincidence that most political speeches of the day are bolstered by the great poets of the day; they can phrase it far better anyway.

For times and emotions that can be too overwhelming for us to grapple with successfully, there’s a poet who has found the words. This is how I validate our study of the poets in my classroom. Poets are certainly not in it for the glamour, with many gaining posthumous notoriety; they simply have the gift of putting the entirety of our emotions into the most appropriate words. On more than one occasion poetry has been needed. I’m drawn to dark memories of poems providing the words needed to help us summon our hope from deep in the reservoir, such as Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem This is the Place, which united an entire city following the horrific Manchester Arena bombings.

So what are the poems and songs that could now unite an entire world? What are the poems and songs that capture the current zeitgeist? That is entirely up to ourselves. Making meaning in these times is an entirely personal journey, and what a journey?! We can trawl through our books or our playlists to find the words needed to navigate this uncertain new world. That is something to relish.

Personally, I have been drawn to the aforementioned Kurt Cobain, who was always able to offer witty, acerbic comment, showing his cynicism of a world gone to pot, not to mention capturing the inner anger we may all possess at this time, providing it a safe escape route. I am further drawn to the poets however, and the poem which keeps dancing into my brain is Brendan Kennelly’s Begin. It is the poem which, if I was asked for one specific one to argue my point about the central role for poetry, I would readily pick every time.

The last four lines are so pertinent, they could have been written yesterday:

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

It is a call to arms by the poet; even when things seem at their worst, it is the -very act of beginning again that provides the most hope. The poet, for me, captures how by simply getting on with things, starting anew, with renewed hope, we can thrive once again. Wow! What a badly needed message for today.

By the end of their  study of poetry, or beginning, I like to think my students have a greater sense that poetry is for them, and is the best utensil in traversing adolescence. At this moment in time, I also like to think we may all gain a greater sense of how poetry and song can steer us through these surreal times. God bless the poets: Their mastery of language may just save us all.


Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

— From The Essential Brendan Kennelly




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