Poetry is for all the times in your life

Siobhan Harvey

26 Aug 2019

Creative writing lecturer Siobhan Harvey

I love the attention National Poetry Day brings to poetry, its power and significance. A day like this reminds me why poetry matters; not just for 24 hours, but for life.

It's important because, unlike a 400-page novel or a memoir from one of our sporting greats, a poem expresses emotion in its purest, most distilled form.

Of course a novel and an autobiography move us emotionally. But a poem is emotion attainable instantly, accessibly and succinctly. In our busy lives, we can read or, thanks to the internet, listen to it quickly, and be changed by the potency of its words, their meaning and music.

It's no coincidence, I think, that at the most emotional times of our lives – weddings, the births of children, funerals – we so often turn to a poem when looking to commemorate the occasion, or for ballast, comfort, joy and/or hope.  At these and other moments, a poem expresses perfectly the things we feel deeply, but may not be able to put into words. On such occasions, a poem – in its emotional intensity and integrity – also encapsulates life, real life, its wonder, struggles and uncertainties, and thereby reminds us, we are not alone.

Poetry matters also because it is democratic. It knows no barriers or prejudices. Age; gender; class; ethnicity: poems can be written by all. I say this as a creative writing teacher who believes that we all have at least one poem inside us waiting to be composed.

I teach undergraduate students in their late teens and early twenties and am often asked to visit schools. Seeing young people write and perform their poems affirms the vitality of poetry. In the poetry our youth craft and read, they're given agency, voice and validation to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Vividly, I recall facilitating a writing exercise with students from South Auckland two years ago. The poems I helped them write connected to family, culture and home. A year-six student in need of learning support, who, his teachers said, had never shown any interest in books or reading aloud, crafted a poem about his mother's illness and passing. In its candour and bravery, the result blew me and his teachers away. The look of pride on his face at the rapturous applause from teachers and peers was priceless.

Often I find the same thing occurs when young men write poetry. They've been frequently told to model themselves upon a social construct of masculinity which requires that their emotions be quelled. Yet in poetry, they're drawn to composing and performing spoken-word pieces which tune into their feelings and offer familiar connection to contemporary rap idols like Post Malone.

For them, as well as for girls and young women, poetry provides an outlet to say the difficult things they're grappling with: identity; relationships; family dysfunction; the ups-and-downs of friendship. In this, poetry plays a vital role in helping them develop their sense of self and their well-being.

Today there'll be readings and poetry-themed events around the country. There will be something on offer – and most of it free – for everyone. Check out the online list of National Poetry Day events near you; get along to hear and engage with contemporary poets and poetry in Aotearoa.

Broadcaster John Campbell once said that poetry could stand next to rugby as our national sport. So today, and every day participate in poetry. Read it. Write it. Let it matter to you.

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First appearance

This opinion piece was first published on Stuff.