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In Honour of Poetry

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By Michelle Naudé

Poetry is the Proteus of literature. It can be read or listened to alone or with a group, in the same space and time or centuries apart. We can find it in old torn books or in the podcast category on Spotify. Poetry is a living, breathing thing that, like the shapeshifting Greek god, regularly metamorphosises into something new.

Humans have always wanted, and needed, art. Children young enough to snap every crayon they pick up scribble the yellow sun and the blue sky. Ancient man used ground up ochre and clay to record their lives on cave walls. Babies in the womb recognise the music their mothers play for them. Every human culture to ever exist has created art.

Historically, the artistic output of a society has increased in times of struggle. The Anglo-Boer War inspired Henry Newbolt to write that, “The river of death has brimmed his banks”, while soldier Wilfred Owen lamented the horrors of the supposed Great War, describing the young men fighting in the trenches as “coughing like hags” and “guttering, choking, drowning”. In Oswald Mtshali’s “The Detribalised”, he expresses the reality of being a black man during apartheid: “Prison is no shame, just as unavoidable and unpleasant as going to a dentist”.

COVID-19 has been no different, with a global spate of writers using poetry as a medium to connect with others and cope with uncertainty. Lauren Shapiro’s line “I can only understand the present” has universal resonance: who, during lockdown, social-distanced and anxious about loved ones, didn’t feel that all they could do was take each day as it came? Taylor Johnson’s powerful assertion “I tell myself to live again” reminds us that there is still so much joy, and bridges the gap between the isolated and communal experience. In times of crisis, we can rely on poets to tackle the complex and even inexplicable experience of being human.

Perhaps it is a result of more time spent home alone, or the blossoming “Instapoetry” movement, but we are seeing the popularity of poetry soar. The youth are making their mark, with the first National Youth Poetry Laureate Amanda Gorman bringing the crowd to its metaphorical knees at Joe Biden’s inauguration with her poem “The Hill We Climb”. In the poem, she notes “the never-ending shade” and “loss we carry” felt by so many American citizens and people across the world. Evidence of poetry’s shapeshifting can be seen in social media poetry, which entails poets (usually young) using social media sites as platforms to make their voices heard. There is more opportunity than ever for poets to gain recognition, and they’re making the most of it. A Canadian poet under the pseudonym “Atticus” shot to fame for his short, simply constructed “Instapoems”, earning himself a slot on The New York Times bestseller list.

What is said of Proteus can be said of poetry: “he answers only to those who are capable of capturing him”. If the thriving contemporary poetry scene is any indicator, we will never stop trying to capture poetry long enough to make it our own.

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