In this special guest post, Auriol Bishop explores the role of poetry in times of turbulence and trouble
What is it about poetry when it feels as though the world is falling apart?
Pithy, expressive, capturing in a soundbite all you want to say and mean; and in far better words than you could have put it yourself – if you reach for your favourite collection of poems at moments of crisis, you can be sure you’re not alone. Social media is alive with poetry new and old, words of comfort and inspiration being shared between friends and strangers. There are numerous blogs, as well as articles in the mainstream press with poetry reading lists to bring you solace in these troubled times of ours.
And you’re in the company of many a world leader and public figure, too, of course: from Jeremy Corbyn declaiming Shelley to the cheering crowds at Glastonbury to President Putin’s public broadcast of the words of Andrey Dementyev for International Women’s Day, there’s a perennial appeal to the higher authority of a poet’s words that have already stood the test of time.
We seek shared experience in their verses: the reassurance that we’re not alone in feeling how we do. We might take inspiration from them – as Martin Luther King drew strength for his ideas from the work of Langston Hughes; and find courage and reassurance in their words – as Nelson Mandela found in memorising and reciting William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” during his imprisonment on Robben Island.
Sometimes, though, this use of poetry in public life can feel like a political party you’d never vote for appropriating your favourite chart hit as its anthem. By its very nature, the language of poetry is open to interpretation. It speaks to us personally as well as standing for universal ideas.
“Invictus” and Kipling’s “If” – two poems so beloved of public figures from presidents to management consultants as to have become almost clichés of their artform – both speak to our inner character; our fortitude in the face of external adversity. They are inherently relatable: whatever you perceive your own particular challenge to be. And so not only Mandela, Martin Luther King and Jawaharlal Nehru, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy have quoted from “Invictus” but also the Oklahoma City bomber and white supremacist groups. And how many of them are aware that the poem was written not on a battle field but from a hospital bed, as its writer fought against tuberculosis? Does this matter, if “whatever gods may be”, we find solace in his words for our own “unconquerable soul”?
The family of Oscar Brown, Jr. would argue that yes, it matters very much: especially if the words of your “revolutionary, outspoken black man” father have been appropriated by the President of the United States as an allegory of immigration law. As Africa Brown said to CNN, Donald Trump reciting “The Snake” is to see words “being stolen to promote his hate message and intolerance and it’s absolutely wrong . . . The elephant in the room is that Trump is the living embodiment of the snake that my father wrote about in that story.”
It seems that, sadly, Trump is giving the lie to JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost, and the fine ideal that “‘When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.’
Poetry that lasts, that is passed from generation, has something about it that transcends the moment in which it was written. Perhaps it also has something that transcends the moment in which it is read. When all that remains of the Trump administration are “two vast and trunkless legs of sand”, it is likely that Shelley and Frost – and let’s hope Oscar Brown Jr. too – will still be speaking through the ages to new generations of readers, rising them like lions out of slumber to face their own demons both inner and political. And perhaps this longevity born of poetry’s wide-openness to interpretation is a price worth paying for that ‘basic human truth’.
Auriol Bishop is Creative Director at HHJQ Publishing. Poems for a world gone to sh*t: the amazing power of poetry to make even the most f**ked up times feel better is out now from Quercus.
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Maybe the people who need poetry are the very people who boast that they never read it.