Why poetry should be mainstream again

As an English student it is easy to forget that most people don’t actually read poetry anymore, the only reason everyone in my seminar does is because its on the reading list. I’m in an academic bubble, one not at all indicative of the level of engagement with poetry in our culture today. Of course, people do read poetry still, they even buy it on occasion – but by and large, it is a dying art form (or at least forgotten). Indeed, in the USA, between 1992-2012 there was a 10.3% decline in readership of poetry despite it being arguably more accessible with the internet (sites such as the Poetry Foundation offering a huge variety of poetry). In fact, according to the same study, Jazz is more popular than poetry in America at the moment. But more convincing than statistics (but far more subjective I’ll admit) is the reaction of people when you tell them you read and write poetry. Raised eyebrows (to show that their eyes are there) and an exaggerated backwards tilt of the head (to prove the chin is present) accompanied by ‘ohhh how wonderful’ or an empty ‘that’s really cool’, its amazing how words and body language simply don’t align. There is a definite stigma attached to poetry in the 21st century (in my generation at least), whether it is totally negative is unclear, however it is certainly present and makes it far harder to want to write. I can’t quite work out what this stigma is, maybe poetry is viewed as a useless pursuit or something ‘for girls’ – definitely not for a guy that’s for sure. Both statistics and perceptions match though; poetry is something of the past and it doesn’t seem like it will make a huge comeback – there is little appetite, that much seems clear.

But it is baffling as to why we’ve left poetry behind and forsaken the opportunity for expression which the art form holds. Poetry isn’t just about flowers and pretty things, or about love and sunshine. It isn’t just highly convoluted and old language, impossible to decipher, and it isn’t all old and irrelevant. Shakespeare has probably given poetry a bad name, or at least a skewed impression of what poetry is. That’s not to criticise the man (get back in your box Shakespeare fans), but most people do encounter Shakespearian verse at school. And even if you love him, you have to admit his work isn’t the most accessible or universal. So, the engagement with poetry often ends at school, with people thinking that Shakespeare represents what poetry is. Perhaps the government have a responsibility to design curriculums to be more engaging and diverse – of course covering the canon of literature, but not limiting it to that. Poetry isn’t dusty old books which deal only with Greek and Roman mythology, it is intensely relevant and even poems written hundreds of years ago can connect with readers today. Take ‘In Memoriam’, written in 1850 by Tennyson, it is still almost impossible not to relate to his grief and suffering. Poetry captures an essence and a common condition within every person. It comes from us, so naturally it speaks to us. It gives an amazing insight into people – we all share common emotion and feeling regardless of belief, gender, age, sexuality, race or anything else you can think of. Poetry is a uniting art.

My dad often asks me (playing the devil’s advocate) what the point of poetry is, or art, or sport, or anything like that. He is right to a certain extent – there is no ‘point’, it doesn’t ‘do’ anything visible like a car does, or a mechanised factory. But they all fulfil a human need for pleasure and entertainment. And I think poetry transcends this basic need. If it does nothing else, it evokes an emotive response or simply an emotion from the reader. Everyone feels something when they read poetry. Whether it be happiness or sadness, cynicism or optimism, pain or relief. It doesn’t really matter what (on a large scale) because poetry’s aim is to garner an emotional sensation and response. If it does that, then the poet has made a connection with another person, and this on a huge scale is really important. To cause someone to feel something through art is the ‘point’ of art, to make someone’s day more than just the usual routine of encounters, to create emotion through words. That should be something everyone wants to engage with surely? On a perhaps less universal note, if people read and enjoy poetry they are more likely to want to write it. If reading stimulates writing, then people need to read more poetry. Poetry isn’t just art, its part of social history. Each poem written in some way engages with the present situation of a person, even if not explicitly. Historical readings of literature have huge amounts to offer us; they help us see how people used to view the world, themselves, their future, and their own past. Poetry is small scale history (sometimes even large scale). Poems can be a window into a life; a person’s intimate interior – records and statistics cannot offer us this insight. If we lose poetry as a literary genre then we starve ourselves in the future of huge parts of history.

Poetry also offers a really interesting study on the limits of language to express. Everyone has probably said ‘ahh I just don’t know how to put it into words’, well poetry has this problem at its heart. If we could just say what we feel in straight language we’d only have prose. But the rhythm, metre, syntax, and tone of poetry all help the language along with ‘finding’ the emotion which the poet feels. This is why music is amazing – the lyrics and the music complement one another to cause the listener to feel more intensely what the musician is trying to express. Poetry does this too, just in a far more subtle way. Words are often secondary in poetry, particularly in more modern poetry, where rarely do the words mean what they say. Poetry exposes how words cannot ever capture more than a fleeting essence of what they try to express – but this only magnifies the effect. There is a common understanding that the most inexpressible emotions are often the most powerful – a poem’s imperfection is completely relatable with everyday communication, exactly why it is so powerful.

I understand that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but neither are certain genres of music or art. I think that poetry has been grossly misrepresented in modern culture, and if there was wider engagement with the genre then there would be greater understanding of what it can represent. There will be a poem you read one day which simply resonates with everything inside of you, then you’ll instantly understand why poetry should be mainstream again.


Find a Place

I should find you a place.

A place peaceful and painless;

a place to hide away.

I would visit you there.


We were made separate to this world,

you and I. My tentative understanding trembles,

my timid offers of help trickle through my frail fingers.

We empty ourselves, day after day, churning our souls.

I’d find a place for you.


Somewhere to scream the pain out,

to tear at your clothes,

to strike the ground, just to hear a true ‘thud’.

Your heart would beat here; thud…thud…


The air must be thin here: I can’t breathe.

Maybe I’ll find you somewhere thicker,

where birds fly slower, time itself cannot pass as fast,

an air so thick everything is slow, a pace at which

we don’t forget how to breath.


Maybe I’ll find a grassy glade,

glowing in the soft, warm, sunlight.

The mossy banks a break for your tired, tired bones.


This place would be silent, slow, and safe.

The water, the birds, the breeze – disturb nothing.

It runs through you, warming you.

Nothing here looms dark and menacing,

light only, pervades this peace.


Here I can look you in the eye,

no wind beating and bending us,

no shouts or roars drown out your simple words.

Time stops. The moment lasts. Smiles reside.


Maybe that’s the place.

Somewhere I can preserve your smile,

is that a noble pursuit?

I could forget all of this, if only I could find a place,

a place where your warm and real smile persists.

You should never try writing as a career.

The best pieces of writing I have read have been the most genuine ones; books or poems in which I can connect to something human, some recognisable quality in a character or description. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I can only enjoy realist writing. Even in fantasy genres you can express some real feeling and emotion, enough to move readers. This, in my eyes, is the point of writing and reading. To express something which another group of people would be able to identify with – provoking an emotive response to something which moves you. I think this is where we must then make the distinction between writing as a career or as a lifestyle.

The distinction between writing as a lifestyle or as a career is one that has interested me for a while. Should we aim to ‘be’ a writer, or should it just be something we do on a day to day basis, fully part of a wider life? That sounds like I’m demoting it to a hobby, but my intention is far from that. A career entails the need for financial support, which is of course reasonable. We need money to support ourselves and others; having a career as a writer then follows that you must be able to make money from writing. (Plainly obvious I know). There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this. I think it would be a dream to be able to write and get money for it; being paid to do what I do in my free time would be amazing. That’s why I chose English Literature as a degree (it certainly wasn’t for the employment prospects); I read and write for fun, so it makes sense to then fill my study time with what is also my favourite thing to do. I feel lucky to be in that position; a career in writing would be the natural next step.

However, I’m reluctant to pursue that. I think money complicates things – I need to pay bills, and what if I get married or have children? Then I wouldn’t just be providing for myself; I would have genuine responsibility to provide for a family. Undoubtedly, I would then have to write for money; this is obvious and perhaps even harmless. Yet, there is a reticence within me to do this. Surely there must be a ‘sell-out’ moment, where I must sacrifice some sort of artistic integrity in order to make money, to sell that next book or article? If I need the money, I’ll write what sells. Now, it may be that what sells is what I would want to write – that would be great. But that’s unlikely. Look at authors like Simon Scarrow and Bernard Cornwell – both excellent authors with great success in what they’ve written, I’ve enjoyed their books for years. In roughly 19 years, Bernard Cornwell released 24 books and Scarrow did 15 in 16 years. That is an impressive feat, the two sets of books are incredibly popular. They are also very similar; historical fiction. This genre seems to be extremely compatible with long series, suggesting that there is a formula of book which is successful. I am in no position to criticise either author; maybe if I ever get as successful I can. I am not suggesting they cannot qualify as artists, however it is clear they have identified a genre which will sell and make money. This suggests there may be a set of qualities which publishers look for which signify a commercial success. Technique, ability, tone, and style all come into play. But what if a publisher begins to dictate those things? Surely, we would lose some authenticity in the innocent attempt to be successful. Commercial writing must come at the price of some artistic uniqueness and originality; this is something no writer should be willing to do.

Writing for a career means you are far more susceptible to being drowned as an artist by calls from the fans and figures. You end up writing what people want, not what you want or set out to create. That is a sacrifice of integrity I think shouldn’t be made. If a career author must do this then writing shouldn’t be a career. Of course, there are exceptions with authors being largely successful for the merit of their work (and to an extent that is every successful author), so it can be done. But I really do believe that if more people have artistic pursuits as a lifestyle rather than a job, we would be the richer for it. Perhaps less time and resources would be available if another job was pursued, yet if writing becomes more authentic due to less external influence (from commercialisation and publishers) then I believe the sacrifice of time is fully reimbursed.

Perhaps it is easier for a poet to hold poetry within a lifestyle rather than as a career. A novelist must devote far much more time to their work than a poet; the length, depth, and nature of the piece of art is wholly different. But I think even a novelist must have lived a life before they can write and their work should speak of this. The cliché expression of ‘there is a book in everyone’ does hold true. Each day we live out a life worthy of an account. You can’t ‘enter’ writing as a career path. Writing must be an expression of a lived-in experience. The truest originality can only be found once you have had a set of experiences unique to your life. So yes, a poet could pursue poetry as a lifestyle far more easily than a novelist, but the idea of ‘starting’ a career in either isn’t one I buy into.

To demonstrate the danger of writing to a commercial criterion I will use one of the biggest criticisms of English as a subject. I’ve learnt that a modern complaint within the subject is directed towards the canon of English Literature. The works which are deemed as our greatest and most successful – what Schools and Universities have taught for centuries essentially. The criticism is that the canon is not representative of culture and life; that is far too middle class and white (and male). We are then exposed to a narrow portion of society and culture, missing swathes of great work. Only a tiny part of the literature studied within the discipline is translated from other languages – we grossly overlook non-English literature. Now I would argue that career writing similarly excludes vast parts of an experience of life. It is extremely difficult to ‘make it’ as a writer, thus a certain genre or style must have a greater success rate. There simply must be a commercially successful genre and style. However, if people who do other things write, then we see a great and colourful portrait of life. If bus drivers, doctors, nurses, bin men, plumbers, singers, cooks, teachers and cleaners wrote down their expression of the life they live then think of the lenses in which we could look through life. Sure, it doesn’t change what gets published, but it means that one day someone will read about how a cleaner saw the world, how they interacted with changes in economics and society and how they loved and hurt. What an amazing thing that would be; to see a puzzle of life being put together by the different parts of society. As a society, we could leave a treasure trove for future generations, giving an insight into life like never before through literature.

If this leaves you in doubt, watch a film called ‘Paterson’. It sums up perfectly what I am trying to articulate. A bus driver poet writes what he sees and experiences; he hears conversations, sees signs, and parts of the city and spends his life in monotony. But he turns it into something for greater than that through his poetry. I’m not doing a film review though – just go watch it. Each one of us have a unique glimpse into the same world; if writing was an expression of this rather than a means to an end, it could be spectacular. I will use a few authors as example; Khaled Hosseini practiced medicine, Salman Rushdie was a copywriter, Philip Larkin was a Librarian, George Orwell was a policeman in Burma and later lived in poverty in both Paris and London. Their works are all unique and capture completely different perspectives on life, giving us a rare opportunity to see things through different lenses. If we wrote (whether it be poetry, novels, articles etc) as a part of our lives then this vast variety of experience would be amplified. We should want to write down what we know and live, if success follows then great. If not; you’ve still done what you wanted to do all along – express something only you could.

I think our generation is far more at risk of commercialising art and writing. Everything is so instant, there a many more careers and opportunities for money. Of course, there is more competition than ever too. But, and I may be wrong, it feels as if this desire for the instant has come at the cost of some sort of patience (for want of a better word). We want success. I want to write and I want to be an author now; it’s almost too difficult to wait until I have something to write about. This could just be me – but it may also be symptomatic of our situation. Maybe if we were more prepared to wait (meaning seeing out a life instead of career writing) then the fruit of our patience would be spectacular.




Windy Days

The lanes wind and weave aimlessly,

Sun-traces chase through cloud,

Blue sky peers cautiously, while

The trees swell in their green,

Hedgerows burst with colour and smell.

This old, quiet, spit of land moves slow,

The days long and different; fleeting.

Such a small place, a micro-culture

With strange names, ancient sites.

Echoes and shadows of the past are larger here.

Secret coves and cliffs open up the

Vastness of blue; above and before.

The advance and retreat of ocean gives

A peaceful monotony, not dulling – more nourishing.

This rolling-green is home to a myriad of shades of life,

Melting and reforming, blasted by sun, bolstered by cloud.

The deep valleys and steep hills are harbours of humanity.

The hills were here longer, but we bite in,

Building new valleys, new heights, and new depths –

Less tangible, more substantial.

Less real, but so much more.

This land is transcendent; I will wither in a blink.

But its transcendence is transient,

My shallow appreciation is battered by the less real, less permanent.

Cascades of feeling freeze me under the sun

Or thaw me in the ice-rain.

My exterior encounters my surroundings,

My interior effaces any effect.

I’ve found one of the steepest hills,

Its raised above the landscape.

You can see where the sun sets, where it rises.

Everyone else seems small from above, you seem bigger.

But its so windy here.

My frailness is jostled to and fro, back and forth.

I never learnt balance. I’m scared of being thrown off, torn by the storm.

I could climb down or fall down, or stay.

A choice between this view, or that safety.

The wind is almost unbearable.

The transcendent fields, hills, valleys, and trees

Are all silent and still.

Still beautiful, still there.

Wind blows about me.

Easter Sunday

The sun is raised, set against blue.

We drive down the hill, into town.

The sun is still raised, on this bright day.

We drive on. Through the estate, the clouds now begin to cling –

Closing around the sun,

Parked outside, inside we head.

Low hanging ceiling, close walls – gloomy.

Rows of people on rows of chairs,

Music quiet; murmurs of conversation, traces of smiles.

“The son is raised!” announces the preacher.

Murmurs and traces now rise to fervour and praises.

Clapping shouting dancing; their joy loudly present.

This eruption of faith forgets the weight of life

Loaded onto our bent backs.

The shadow of out there flees at this mess of noise

The shadow of out there withers and withdraws

The shadow of out there is just…a shadow, out there.

I am detached from this spectacle by scepticism;

Shakily holding to a fear of nothing, fear of the empty.

I fear their faith just as strongly.

What if, what if, what if- this drowns, dauntingly, all admission.

Suddenly and solemnly a sad, pale man rises.

His eyes shot, body gaunt, stubble like teeth.

Blue unbuttoned shirt, un-ironed jeans.

The lines on his face speak sombrely – stains of stories.

Silence descends, eyes fix on the front.

He meekly leans on the lectern, one deep breath;

We are plunged then, communally sat in this community hall,

With a low ceiling and close walls, plunged into honesty.

The tall man spoke softly – his a story of regression.

6 years dry; broken the day before.

I now fear this force of honesty.

His plea was forgiveness, the response was as fierce as the sun on a frosted morning:

Warmth of hugs and tears – thawing his cold set figure.

God or no, risen or not, belief or unbelief –

These seem to silently fade, the close walls withdraw, the ceiling raised.

If the son wasn’t raised, this man still shared his struggle.

That is something, even if there is nothing.

And now, outside, the sun is raised – set against blue.


Time is here, but not.

The clock moves, but nothing does.

Nothing responds to traces of time trying to change this spot.

Spots of light linger loosely, cling closely, to

Spots of life; floating flies, dancing and darting.

The busiest thing here, silent and new.

Blossom frosts tall trees, yellow-green.

Hedges hold wisps of white,

The willow waves overhead, slowly shifting shadow.

The heat must melt air. Slowing everything down;

Time races on, but life stands still.

No cool breeze lifts the load of this thick air.

Dust rises as cows protest the farmer,

Birds compete, entering their soft song.

Nothing intrudes or interrupts this mix.

Fields of innocence idly exist, playing platform to this scene.

Here, tales of terror taint nothing.

Fear fails to flaw this beauty.

Only blossom falls here, only trees wave in the dust.

The only green is grass, only the sun burns.

When all else seems broken or betrayed,

Forgotten or failed,

shaken or shed:

Then hold to scenes of goodness and innocence; our only defence.


I used to think the grass is greener

Over there, where you all seem to smile.

Where you’re happy, full of brightness and sound.

I saw myself not there.

Now, now I understand that happy and sad

Aren’t binary. It isn’t a choice between.

It isn’t so simple, we all struggle.

Maybe we’re too disconnected to see.

See that we’re all going upstream, slowly.

The wind and current working against us.

Gravity pulling at our legs and arms,

Sunshine beating down, cracking our frail skin.

We’ve forgotten how to survive this wild.

We feed on likes, false versions being sold,

Choose meticulously which story told,

Check this meme, filter on this pic – Snapchat:

Thankyou! Now I send an empty photo

Each day for my streak. Now I check stories

Instead of getting out and making them real.

I can’t believe, I’ve been swallowed up.

Sitting on my phone is the only thing

I can do some days, it is the only thing that

Makes me value realness less. I hate it.

My inner being churned, overwhelmed by

By something I can’t touch or attain.

It breaks my heart to remember that

I was once my mother’s child, free and young.

Now tendrils of dark cling to my being.

It breaks again when I know I want kids;

They will have to bear out this same struggle.

They will love, hurt, breath this thick air in.

They will learn to survive without a guide.

But maybe this struggle is all we have,

One hazy, blurry, messy pot of life.

All going upstream; struggling the same way.

We struggle together, defiantly.