I have always found poetry an unwelcoming art. It felt elitist and inaccessible, with no place in the life of an ordinary twenty-first century teen outside of an English classroom.
I was reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (for the Women in Work book club, please join in!), a collection of writing by the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde described poetry as “the major voice of poor, working class, and Coloured women,” it getting less attention than other literature because a capitalist society struggles to appreciate any art where time, resources, and money are not a necessary requirement.
During lockdown I got that New Years Eve feeling, a desire to become my best self. But staying true to my goal always, I did not want to improve myself in the way capitalism wants me to. With a desire to expand my mind outside the rigidity of academia, I challenged myself to get into poetry; the most ‘useless’ literature today. Seriously, how many people do you know who spend their lives writing poems?
Exposing myself as a true newbie, I turned to Instagram, or more accurately Rupi Kaur. Kaur remains one of very few poets who are alive whose work I am aware of. Kaur has faced criticism for her very simple style of poetry. Her characteristic all lower-case poems steer clear of rhyme, alliteration, syntax and similes in favour of everyday language and accessible ideas. Her poetry has sparked the wit of hordes of mocking mimics online; but equally she has achieved a level of success practically unheard of for a poet of our generation. Not only has she sold millions of copies of her work, but has created a whole new wave of Instapoets who are bringing the art into the twenty-first century. Obviously, any women of colour who breaks the status quo and is financially rewarded for it cannot possibly be celebrated by society, and thus her work is not widely recognised as real literature.
Personally, Kaur’s work doesn’t speak to my soul in the way I wanted the poetry I read to. But I cannot deny her power. The merit of her work lies in its simplicity and ability to appeal to the masses in a way most poetry does not. It has captured the hearts and minds of millions and put poetry on many more’s radar, including my own.
I had far more success scouring the internet, a vast and overwhelming resource which is only helpful with some direction. The only place I knew to start was with writers whose other work I already enjoyed. Reading Lorde’s poetry not only exposed me to the ideas in her work but took me down a rabbit hole of feminist poetry from Dickinson to Atwood. Having fallen in love with the darkness of The Bell Jar in my angstier years, I delved into the vivid works of Plath. Soon, I had read a random collection of poetry, some of which I liked less than others, but all of which helped me understand what I wanted to read.
For me, the joy of poetry is that it provides a snapshot of emotion, a glance into another’s stream of consciousness. It can feel like a diary entry or a parable, or both at the same time. I enjoy poems that capture a moment or a musing, an image or an idea, that plant that same reflection into the head of the reader. I have added the lens of a poet to my world view and notice things that could have sparked the imagination of these poets. Everything isn’t endlessly explained, instead we understand and feel understood in no more than a few lines. We continue that reflection, we make the poem our own in our heads. When we look at poetry as something to be broken down into component parts or when we get lost in a sea of analysis, we fail to feel and therefore understand that it has different power to different people.
Carving out some time to engage with reflection is a rebellion against a world that is trying so hard to keep us busy. We owe it to ourselves to take a break from the bombardment of notifications that ensure no relaxation, particularly in these strange times. We owe it to ourselves to escape, just for a few minutes a day, and engage with a mind that’s worlds away from our own. We should all be reading poetry.