I have always been comfortable with words. Nowadays I read every day, and reading was a big part of my growing-up too, though only stuff I enjoyed. I started with the Famous Five, moved on to comics and football annuals, and then graduated in my teens to Sherlock Holmes and horror novels by the likes of Stephen King and James Herbert. But I didn’t find poetry easy as a child, and I still don’t. Today – Thursday 5 October – is National Poetry Day, an annual celebration described as the form’s “most visible moment”, helping us all “to enjoy, discover and share poetry”. It is the perfect occasion, then, to reflect on some of the benefits that reading, listening to, reciting and/or writing poetry can offer people of all ages, not least children, who are just beginning to appreciate the extraordinary power of words and language.
We have considered in the past the educational value of poetry. It is perfect for children as a vehicle for creativity and for learning to work with language. They can have fun playing about with words and phrases, experimenting with rhymes and learning the basics of rhythm and metre.
In our recent blog Reciting poetry we discussed the role that poetry can play in developing young people’s speaking skills and their self-confidence. We described poetry as “the go-to resource for introducing children to the beauty and musicality of language, for practising memory-strengthening techniques and for helping them learn to speak confidently and fluently in front of others.”
We have highlighted the work that Gyles Brandreth does through his Poetry Together initiative, which helps bridge the generational divide by encouraging schools and care homes for older people to connect with each other, learn a poem off by heart and come together to recite.
And we have also noted that writing poetry is perhaps the most accessible and therefore democratic of art forms. The former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy said that you can find poetry “in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what’s in your heart”. Anyone can have a go at writing a few lines of verse. Here’s my effort:
It takes me an awfully long time
To come up with a fun little rhyme
I grouch and I grumble
I salivate and mumble
But when I do – well, gosh – it’s sublime
What’s more, you don’t even need a pen and a piece of paper. As Radio 4’s Start the Week reminded us on Monday, poetry has an oral tradition dating back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad were almost certainly written to be read aloud.
Nowadays, there are huge numbers of resources available either free of charge or at minimal cost to encourage people of all ages to engage with poetry. The National Poetry Day website itself has curated a selection of permissions-cleared poems based on its 2023 theme of refuge. It also has a wealth of education resources for all age groups, exploring all manner of poems and supporting would-be poets to give it a go.
In July 2022 we wrote about Joseph Coelho, the current children’s laureate. One of his passions is to make the reading and writing of poetry accessible to all. Poetry Prompts is his “flagship project”, an “epic celebration of the power of poetry in all its forms”. His aim, he says, is to break down the fear often associated with reading and writing and show why poems are for everyone, alongside the joy that writing, reading and performing poetry can bring to our lives.
We turn to poetry at weddings, funerals and births because it goes beyond mere words and translates the soul. But there is baggage associated with poetry that I want everyone to put down – to allow everyone to reclaim the birth right of poet. So often I’ve met children and adults scared to put pen to paper, terrified of ‘getting it wrong’ – this has repercussions in all aspects of life. I want to show everyone that poetry is for them, that we can enjoy the rules and break the rules.Joseph Coelho, writing on his Poetry Prompts webpage
Every week Coelho shares a Poetry Prompt video to encourage young and old to write poems. Poetry Prompts started in October 2022 (to coincide with National Poetry Day) and at the time of writing is up to week 44.