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Is poetry important?

Lecturer and poet, Dr JT Welsch, explores the reasons behind the importance of poetry.
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I want to start this video with a question: is poetry important? I assume you wouldn’t be watching if you didn’t think it was. On the other hand, you might have occasionally had that nagging feeling, thinking about the time and energy people have put into writing and reading poems for thousands of years. More than that, on a planet full of daily disasters that are both impossibly big and deeply personal,
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you might wonder: what can poetry do? When these questions arise, someone will often quote the poet W. H.
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Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ This becomes a provocation, especially for those of us who feel quite strongly that poetry does make things happen, though we can’t always say what. Another poet we might call on is Adrienne Rich, who questions this expectation that poetry should have direct consequences.
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Rich says: ‘To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistake as to try to declare immediately what a particular protest demonstration or a picket line has “accomplished”.’ Taking this idea literally, Rich’s quote makes me think of a particular day in February 2017. In the afternoon, I took this photo at a protest against Brexit outside parliament. That evening, more than 50 poets gathered in a big shed in south London to read poems in solidarity. Did either of those activities make anything happen? Adrienne Rich shows how complicated this question is. Rather than look for immediate, measurable consequences, she reminds us that ‘the reading or hearing of a poem can transform consciousness.’
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This actually sounds like a pretty major result, the idea that encountering a poem might transform someone’s consciousness, or a collective consciousness – the way that others think or experience the world. But it’s not the sort of thing you can measure in sales figures. The specific context here – a poetry reading which was in support of migrants, refugees, and others affected by the UK’s immigration policy – also connects with the poet Audre Lorde’s insistence that ‘poetry is not a luxury’. For women, writers of colour, and others whose mere presence is perceived as a threat to certain ways of seeing the world, poetry’s ability to transform consciousness makes it a matter of survival. At the most basic level of language and experience,
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Lorde says: ‘Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.’ Poetry creates new possibilities, she says, laying ‘the foundation for a future of change’. And again, this might be hard to measure, but it’s quite a big thing to make happen. After that reading in London, the Hungarian poet Ágnes Lehóczky and I published an anthology of poetry written by and in support of migrant writers. For 18 months or so, we gathered with other migrant poets in venues across the UK and Ireland to read to whoever would listen. When we sold out the first print run, we were able to put all proceeds into a reasonable donation to a charity that helps refugees.
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But I’m still not sure we can say for certain what poetry made happen, in this case. Coming back to where I started, however, it’s worth remembering that the overused Auden quote comes from a poem. It’s not him saying it directly. And in that poem, which he wrote for William Butler Yeats,
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it’s worth remembering that the line continues: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, he says, ‘it survives’. ‘It survives,’ he says again in the same stanza, ‘a way of happening, a mouth.’ And in this way, the poem repudiates its own claim that nothing will happen. The poem itself survives and, in turn, becomes a way of happening. These are obviously big, abstract ideas, but I think they can change the way we read or write poetry in practical terms too. When reading or writing, we can consider ways in which a poem is working to ‘name the nameless’. We can consider the new ways of thinking opened by its form or by its language.
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More than anything, we can allow the poem to transform our own consciousness. We can see where it reaches out, where it asks for our empathy. Learning from a phrase by the poet Roger Robinson, we can see how this turns poems into ‘empathy machines’. And we can use these machines; and we can learn from the many great nothings that they make happen.

In this video, lecturer and poet Dr JT Welsch examines the ways in which poetry can contribute to our world, and provide meaningful ways of understanding, protesting, and engaging with the issues that face us today.

Over to you

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Poetry: How to Read a Poem

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