The Power of Poetry

I love poetry. I’ve always thought of it as distilled language: as though ideas have been boiled down and condensed so that only the concentrated essence remains. Because of this, every word in a poem feels somehow as if it’s carrying extra weight, extra resonance, extra value. When reading a poem, my senses are heightened and alerted: it’s a thrilling, exciting feeling.

I first experienced this sensation in an English Literature classroom in the autumn of 1991 (or possibly the spring of 1992) when I first encountered the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I’d always loved books and reading, but when I read Plath it was like I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Lady Lazarus and the hairs standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. My teacher lent me his copy of her collection Ariel, and I haven’t looked back since.

My collection of Sylvia Plath books, 29 years after first reading her work

My experience of “waking up” to poetry sounds exactly like the experience of our current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. On Desert Island Discs earlier this year, he described vividly his first encounter with the work of Ted Hughes:

“It suddenly struck me, in a very electrifying moment, that the world was a really interesting place. It could be packaged up in these little bundles of language, which, at the end of the day, are only black marks against a white page. But if you put them in the right order, you can make extraordinary things happen in somebody else’s head across thousands of miles, across thousands of years, and in complete silence. And the shock of that realisation and the primitive magic of it has never really left me. I still feel that when I’m looking at a poem: that I’m staring at some kind of circuit board of language, which makes a contactless contact with something in my head. I think I knew at that very moment, that poetry was going to be my thing.”

Simon Armitage on Desert Island Discs, broadcast 15th May 2020.

Over the years, I have taught poetry to hundreds and hundreds of students. I haven’t always succeeded in igniting the same passion in every single one of them! But I hope I have helped some to find the power of poetry, and to enjoy it for themselves – away from having to study it for GCSE.

This last week, I have been blown away to see exactly this happen at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. At the end of January 2020, Ms Cody from our English Department gave an assembly to all main school students on the theme of “Literature that changed the world.” At least one student was inspired to pick up the books Ms Cody described, to see what all the fuss was about. That student was Imogen Beaumont, who has gone from winning our House Poetry Competition in 2019 to becoming a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2020.

Some of my collection of Foyle Young Poets anthologies from over the years

I have followed the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for over 20 years. Since 1998, the Award has been finding, celebrating and supporting the very best young poets from around the world. It is firmly established as the leading competition for young poets aged between 11 and 17 years old. This year, a staggering 15,966 poems were entered. Young writers from a record-breaking 118 countries entered the competition from as far afield as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Mozambique, North Korea and the Seychelles, and every corner of the UK. From these poems, this year’s judges Keith Jarrett and Maura Dooley selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets. After Mr Lockett put the entry invitation into our newsletter on 3rd July, Imogen entered. Her poem, The sound of Shakespeare’s women, was chosen as one of the top 15. When you read it, you can see why:

The sound of Shakepeare’s Women

If Juliet was silenced

amongst a patriarchal nightmare and

Lavinia was two limbs down

with no tongue to tell their tale and

Ophelia was driven to madness

with no sense left to speak and

Cordelia was shunned by her father,

her pointless words falling on deaf ears and

Desdemona’s desperate truth

was shouted down by whispered lies,

Then Will’s trying to tell us something.

By Imogen Beaumont

Imogen’s poem is a powerful, skilful piece of writing. She told me she reads a lot of Shakespeare – and you can tell! The poem draws in repeated examples of female characters in Shakepeare’s plays who are variously silenced, ignored, or left voiceless.

Juliet pleads with her father in Romeo and Juliet to listen to her when he plans her marriage to a man she does not love. He ignores her pleas, and she is forced to take desperate measures. Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t reveal who attacked her. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet, who said he loved her, ignores her and hurls abuse at her when she tries to help him. Cordelia tells her father, King Lear, the truth when he asks her to: as a result, she is disinherited and cast out from the family. Othello is tricked into believing his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. She tells him again and again that it isn’t true, but he believes the lies and smothers her with a pillow.

Imi’s poem illustrated by award-winning artist and author Chris Riddell

In each case, the inability of the male characters to hear what the women are trying to tell them leads to tragedy. What Imogen does so skilfully is distil those stories down to their concentrated core, and connect them with one final line to our modern day experience. The #MeToo movement and the linked #BelieveHer hashtag show that, today, women’s voices are still too often ignored, silenced, or discounted. It would seem the lesson that Shakespeare was trying to teach over 400 years ago has still not been learned.

Imogen’s powerful voice has found just the right words, in just the right order, to connect ideas across hundreds of years and deliver that electric shock of meaning that only poetry can deliver. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m really proud that our English teachers have had some small part in unlocking her talent: we can’t wait to see what she’ll write next, or where the next young poet will spring from. Could it be you?