Today is National Poetry Day – an annual event that is celebrated across the whole of the UK. The day is intended to help people discover and enjoy all types of poetry, whilst also encouraging people to read, write and share poems.
National Poetry Day is an important event in our calendar as it demonstrates the significance of poetry and the value it adds to our society.
Many people think that poetry isn’t for them, that it is something inaccessible or outdated and I think given the way poetry was put forward to us in school, that can be a fair assumption.
However, what National Poetry Day does is attempt to alleviate these misconceptions and begins a conversation about old and new poems, how these poems make us feel, and the impact they have on the world around us.
In the beginning
Poetry is one of the most ancient arts. Unlike other literary forms, it is difficult to pinpoint how far back poetry began – in one form or another though, poetry has been around for thousands of years. It is believed that epic poetry (poems of a lengthy narrative) is the first instance of written poetic work, appearing as early as the 20th century BC, then onto sonnets which made their first appearance in the 13th century.
The most well-known works of epic poetry (in the Western world at least) would probably include Iliad and Odyssey, both works of Greek mythology that have been attributed to the poet Homer. Although these works were compiled thousands of years ago, they can be found translated in libraries today.
Although the first published or known works were mostly by men at this time, there were many women poets, they were just forgotten or neglected by those who studied poetry. History’s first known poet, Enheduanna, more commonly know as Sappho was the first author and poet to be known by name and must be the best-known women poet before modern time. She wrote her work around the sixth century B.C.E., but all ten of her books were lost and can only now be found as edits in other people work.
Now, It would be a crime to talk about poetry and not discuss the creation of the sonnet and it’s true that most of us learned to distinguish between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets in high school but it is important to note that these works are fundamental to the history of the verse. Petrarca is perhaps one of the earliest writers of the sonnet (which is how Petrarchan sonnets got their name), following his work in the 14th century, other poets created many variations of the sonnet but it is best known as an English poetic form through the works of William Shakespeare in the 16th century.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that emphasised the individual mind, spirit, and body: the emotional, irrational, imaginative and spontaneous.
This movement came around at the end of the Enlightenment period where Romantic Era thinkers resisted the idea that society could control the individual mind, creativity, and imagination, and rebelled against any forces that tried to confine them.
This revolution was massive for the world of poetry – Championed by authors like William Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson, Romantic authors often used themes of the individual, imaginative, and emotional in their works. The movement explored the effect of leaving behind the strict order that was central to Classical and Neoclassical works, as well as departing from the heavily rational basis of the Enlightenment period.
As a result, many romantic works feel relevant today, where individual, imaginative, and emotional themes are important to many modern works.
History of women in Poetry
Women are often omitted from many parts of history but the work of female poets gives a much needed perspective on the world of poetry and how it has impacted society as a whole.
History is predominantly told from a male perspective and most of our historical texts are dominated by men but the lack of representation does not disregard the powerful influence that women have had on humanity throughout history and the impact they are still having on it today.
The onus of women’s literature is to categorise and create an area of study for a group of marginalised people by history and to explore their writing through their own unique voices and experiences. This is something that many women have done – Mary Wollstonecraft is said to have paved the way for many women to publish their own work and to enter critical discourse surrounding women’s literature with her landmark treatise ‘A Vindication on the Rights of Women’ (1972).
For a long time, the only people interested in reading works of women were other women – The poem ‘The Female Advocate: A Poem Occasioned by Reading Mr Duncombe’s Feminead‘ (1774) by Mary Scott is notable because it praises other women writers publishing at the time, including children’s writer Sarah Fielding and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a writer whose political opinions eventually led to her being blacklisted after she published an inflammatory poem on her disagreement with the British Empires involvement in the Napoleonic wars.
Women have faced adversity throughout all of history, their ideas and experiences placed into boxes and restrictions on what they can achieve like bolted chains keeping them at bay but this hasn’t stopped them from inspiring the world of literature and art.
I could sit here all day and talk about all of the inspiring women that have come and gone throughout history but to save turning this article turning into a dissertation I will just name a few; Maya Angelou with ‘Phenomenal Woman‘, ‘Still I Rise‘, ‘Caged Bird‘, Audre Lorde with ‘A Woman Speaks‘, ‘Recreation‘, ‘Who Said It Was Simple‘, Adrienne Rich with A Mark of Resistance, and What Kind of Times Are These and Sylvia Plath with ‘Lady Lazarus‘ and ‘Ariel‘.
(Image credit: Poetryfoundation.org)
The influence of poetry today
Poetry is vulnerable, it is people pouring their heart and soul out into the world and screaming to connect with another, poetry gives us hope, bring us sadness, makes us question everything, poetry is art and it has the ability to influence the world in all different ways.
Poetry allows us to understand the significance of the words themselves, and what they are trying to tell us about the world – it is the sheer product of human feeling combined with imagination. This is why it has the ability to inspire change and progress.
Poetry is an art form that can be adapted in many ways, some people write poetry in their journals and it will sit in a drawer forever, some stand on a stage and perform their art, others have it published in collections but no matter what is done with the poems that are written each one has served a purpose. It gives a voice to the voiceless, allows for our stories to live somewhere outside of our heads, gives our experiences extra room to breathe and in doing so, becomes art.
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