I am one of those rare creatures who loves poetry.
Who actually sits down and reads it.
Perhaps I’m wrong – and I hope I am – but I seldom if ever meet anyone who loves it the way I do. For whom poetry is, indeed, so often worth more than pictures, more than prose.
For me, poetry is the most economically form of writing. (not that I can write it, sadly.)
After all, there’s no need for a narrative if it’s lyrical verse.
There’s no need for characters, structure, developmental progression or all that other stuff that prose writers have to contend with and give endless diligence and attention.
The essence, the emotion or, to borrow from Plato(and why not?) the truth remains.
Shelley called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world which is quite a claim. But one that I’m happy to accept.
Simon Armitage, our Poet Laureate, has written a poem called Resistance that speaks to us now. This month. This week. Even this very day. You might have heard him share it on Radio 4 on Friday.
War poetry is nothing new, of course. Poets have always written poems during conflicts and if people only remember one or two poems, they are very often those written by WW1 poets. And the power of these poems is evidenced by the fact that they are usually the only ones that manage to arrest the attention of disaffected year 10 school students.
Present a class with lines like:
Sombre the night is:
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there
and further on in Isaac Rosenberg’s haunting poem, Returning, We Hear the Larks:
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song
and you have them actually listening. And Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est evokes an attentive response from the opening lines:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Poetry undeniably has power.
Gillian Clarke, who was the national poet for Wales for some years, writes of this power in her wonderful poem, Miracle on St. David’s Day. She recounts how when visiting a residential home –
I am reading poetry to the insane –
huge and mild,
who has never spoken in his life stands up and starts to recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Fluently. By heart.
Clarke goes on to tell us that 40 years before, in a Valleys School,
the class recited poetry by rote
and that the man has:
remembered there was a music of speech
and that once he had something to say.
Back to Simon Armitage and his poem, Resistance, written about the invasion of Ukraine.
The poem is, he says, a refracted version of what is coming at us in obscene images through the news. He acknowledges that poetry has an unbroken relationship with conflict and war going right back to the Iliad.
And, interestingly, talks of the WW1 poets as ‘the bloggers of their day.’ It’s an entirely original way of thinking of them and makes such sense when propaganda was rife and it was in the poems of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenburg and others that the distilled truth of the situation was to be found.
Armitage’s poem, not surprisingly, is evocative and stark. All the more so, of course, as we are currently seeing the images he conveys on our screens, in our newspapers.
It’s war again,
is the refrain through the poem and there is a subliminal reference to the poetry of Wilfred Owen for anyone familiar with Owen’s statement that the poetry is in the pity.
But at least the poem ends on a marginally optimistic note.
Or if not entirely optimistic, the word hope is the final word of the poem. There’s consolation to be found in that.
Let’s sincerely trust that Armitage is proved right in his choice.