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?

The book that made me

On World Book Day this week, I was reflecting on the books that I have read and which one I would choose as the most significant – the book which made me. There is really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath.

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My copy of the Collected Poems

I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem like it was yesterday. In actual fact, it was upstairs in a sixth form classroom when I was in Year 12, in the summer of 1992. One of my English teachers, Mr Rattue, presented us with two poems called “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, writing about her personal trauma with almost clinical precision, without sacrificing any of the emotional content. The fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying voice of the poems mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Plath’s collection Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.

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My copy of The Bell Jar

I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews. I still carry it with me, tattered now after many years, but intact.

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Inside my copy of The Collected Poems

My copy of  The Collected Poems came later, in a really important week of milestones. After taking part in every school play and production going, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy a book to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon of 19th December 1992, I got my acceptance letter from Oxford University.

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Analysing Ariel: my university notes inside The Collected Poems

I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year and returning to it for my finals. In my teaching career I have taught The Bell Jar and Ariel as part of A-level English Literature. Whenever I return to the poems, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.

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Tattered but intact – my copy of The Moon and the Yew Tree hand-typed over 25 years ago

The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.