Poetry – one of the oldest and most treasured forms of expression – is having a moment, and most recently has been seen as a powerful catalyst for dialogue and peace …
According to UNESCO, World Poetry Day on Sunday March 21, is meant to encourage “a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry to support small publishers and create an attractive image of poetry in the media, so that poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity.” To mark the occasion Irish artist Christina Reihill (a former Vogue staffer) is presenting “Presence”, a public projection of her latest poetic work on empty buildings in London including the Tate Modern, the Royal Opera House, and Royal Festival Hall, South Bank.
“Presence” is a reflective poem in five verses on the relatable response to the “terror” of Covid-19. It invites readers to pause and remember that despite the sense of powerlessness created by any crisis, we are powerful. Reihill explains: “My poem ‘Presence’ touches the central theme of all my work: namely the power of our minds and the wisdom to know that freedom is a state of mind, not a state of body. We are free if we decide that we are free, and words are the most universal vehicle to communicate this”.
The work also reminds us that poetry is ordinary words carefully considered and when words are spoken from the heart, they connect us.
That was evident at the recent inauguration of President Joe Biden, when Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb”. It painted a picture of a broken nation laced with references to current events, history and popular culture. Gorman demonstrated that poetry provides comfort as well as an awareness of our society and our environment. Gorman has three works scheduled to be published this year: the printed copy of her Inauguration Day poem, out on March 30, as well as a children’s book Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem and the poetry anthology The Hill We Climb and Other Poems, both due to be published in September.
Poetry is undoubtedly having a renaissance and social media has played a significant part in this. Two of the most popular “Insta-poets” are Amanda Lovelace and Rupi Kaur, while the prominent spoken word artist Hollie McNish first made her name on YouTube. As Kaur acknowledges, “Poetry used to be at the back of bookstores. There used to be a dinky little poetry shelf. And nobody really ever ventured back there.” Now, poetry is often featured at the front of bookstores, reflecting that the poetry we read nowadays is much more diverse in terms of who’s writing it and how it is published. Most Generation X-ers will remember school curriculums with exclusively male, white, dead poets (such as Dylan Thomas, William Wordsworth and Tennyson) but now female, contemporary poets feature prominently.
It helps too that fashion designers have raised awareness of poetry – often embroidering poetic words into their creations. Prabal Gurung embroidered one of Kaur’s poems into his SS17 collection: “Our backs tell the story no books have the spine to carry.” Alexander McQueen loved Dante, which inspired his AW1996 collection. More recently Sarah Burton printed passages from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer” onto blazers of the SS18 Alexander McQueen menswear collection. At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli collaborated with four contemporary poets – Ysra Daley-Ward, Mustafa the Poet, Greta Bellamacina and Robert Montgomery – embroidering their words (“Leave your door open for me/I might sleepwalk into your dreams”) onto gowns in AW19. Showgoers were presented with a collection of poetry called Valentino On Love. Of course, Piccioli’s former colleague Maria Grazia Chiuri has also championed feminist poets. She took the line “We should all be feminists” from the author and poet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay on feminism. She also created T-shirts bearing the words of American feminist and poet Robin Morgan: “Sisterhood is Powerful, Sisterhood is Global, and Sisterhood is Forever”.
Followers of Korean illustrator poet Henn Kim, who has a fan base of almost one million followers on Instagram, will know she has collaborated on major campaigns for Bottega Veneta and Nike. Kim is the visionary behind the iconic covers of Sally Rooney’s novels Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Later this summer she will publish her own book Starry Night, Blurry Dreams (Bloomsbury) – a collection of graphic poetry exploring loneliness, love and living. In her own words, Kim describes her illustrations as “beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies” – they are minimalist, surreal and deeply evocative.
Poetry has already been very much front of mind this week. To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, The Prince of Wales recorded a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem The Shipping Forecast on his Instagram (@clarencehouse). Dublin Vinyl also released a double album of Pomes Penyeach (the literal meaning is “poems for a penny each”) breathing new life into James Joyce’s 1927 publication of thirteen short poems via music and song. The album is available to pre-order and will be released worldwide on Bloomsday, June 16 (www.dublinvinyl.com).
On March 18, Irish actor Stephen Rea led a special tribute to his late friend and poet Derek Mahon. Filmed in the Georgian splendour of Newbridge House, Donabate, the evening of poetry and music included some of Mahon’s most renowned works including “Everything is going to be Alright” and “A Fox in Grafton Street”, written during lockdown. These poems were coupled with music performed by the Chieftains’ Matt Molloy, Paddy Glackin and Neil Martin. Nigerian Irish poet FeliSpeaks also performed her spoken word piece “We know Survival Well” in response to Mahon’s “After the Titanic”. In case you missed these performances they can still be viewed on www.tradfest.ie.
For fans of Irish verse-novelist Sarah Crossan, recent news that she is releasing an anthology of poems Tomorrow is Beautiful is also exciting. Crossan explains, “I have always believed poetry should serve everyone, and as the Irish Children’s Literature Laureate from 2018 to 2020 I spearheaded a project called We Are The Poets, which sought to deliver poems to those who thought it couldn’t be theirs. I hope this anthology will be an extension of this work with the added goal of inviting readers to feel hopeful about tomorrow. Reading, and specifically poetry, has guided me through the dark days of this pandemic and I cannot wait to share these word-cures with as many people as possible. Choosing poems from greats such as Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson wasn’t easy, but it was wildly exciting. Even more exciting was choosing incredible work from contemporary poets and having the opportunity to create new work myself.” The anthology will be published by Bloomsbury in September.
I like Crossan’s concept of poetry as “word cures”. If you are looking for inspiration on what poetry to read, some of this month’s new releases include Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different, edited by Maisie Lawrence and Rishi Dastidar (Corsair). This is an anthology celebrating 20 years of writers’ collective Malikaspoetrykitchen.com featuring work Warsan Shire, Inua Ellams, Roger Robinson and Malika Booker herself.
Novelist, dancer and poet Tishani Doshi is also publishing A God at the Door (Bloodaxe). In this Doshi combines rage with witty analysis covering issues from the environment to the treatment of women. Doshi is part of the line-up at the virtual Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2021, which runs from April 21 – 21; www.cuirt.ie.
Finally, for something more immediate, and rewarding, visit Poetry Ireland’s website where you’ll find Irish poets reading their own work; www.poetryireland.ie.
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