Poetry’s premature obituary

Musa Okwonga
poetry 300x225 Poetrys premature obituary

(Getty Images)

This weekend, I was surprised to learn from an opinion piece in The Independent that “poetry is dying”. I was even more surprised to discover, in the following line, that “[actually], it’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes.”

The bearer of this sad news was a Mr. Nathan Thompson, who like me is a poet. Baffled by his diagnosis – as were many others, who have produced swift and forensic replies here, here, here, here, here and here – I took a further look through his words for evidence of his claim.

It seemed that a cause of poetry’s death was the “poetry slam”, where rival poets recite their verse in turn in front of an audience and a panel of judges. I was bemused then to find from a fellow writer that Mr. Thompson earns some of his living by teaching people to compete in poetry slams. If poetry is indeed dead, then it is Mr. Thompson who has been paid to administer the killing blow.

Fortunately, the rumours of poetry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Poetry is not dead to Cerys Matthews or Janice Long, both of whom regularly invite poets to give readings on their BBC Radio shows. Poetry is not dead to the international fanbase of Scroobius Pip. Poetry is not dead to, say, the Birmingham crowds who regularly go to see Jodi Ann Bickley in action at her own night, Speak Up; it is not dead to the thousands wowed on YouTube by Polarbear’s performance of “Jessica”, or to those moved by Dean Atta’s delivery of “I Am Nobody’s Nigger.” It is not dead to those who attended George The Poet’s recent show at the Royal Albert Hall, or to those who stroll down to the National to see Inua Ellams perform the latest of his one-man plays.

Poetry’s enduring role, I believe, is to capture moments and emotions with a rare and beautiful brevity. “A Want” by Joshua Idehen was the most powerful dissection of the roots of the UK riots that I have read. Warsan Shire’s “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth” is as sublimely composed a collection of poems as I have seen. Each of these poets and dozens more I have not named here, are just as accomplished on the page as they are on the stage. This divide between poets who perform their work and those who do not is, I believe a false one. Whether written or spoken, poetry is either well-crafted or it is not.

“Like sipping a fine wine,” writes Mr. Thompson, “reading poetry cannot be rushed… It runs bang against the grain of our quick-fix culture. It is already a lost discipline”. He is right to remind poets that they should learn their trade. At the same time, he should also note that perhaps the outstanding performance poet of her generation, Kate Tempest, is also one of the most deferential to the poets who preceded her. As she herself has noted, “before you write, you gotta read/So I read Shakespeare, Blake, Beckett and Sophocles”.  She is an example of the excellence that can be achieved through diligent study of the art-form.

Moreover, whilst poetry is a discipline that reveres its elders like few others, it is striking that some of the greatest talent that I have witnessed in recent years has emerged at the Roundhouse Poetry Slam, for competitors between the ages of 16 and 25.  There, at an event very different from that caricatured in Mr. Thompson’s article, I have watched poets deliver work of a maturity that those twice their age would struggle to attain. Were Mr. Thompson to wander along to watch the contestants one evening, he would quickly see that the world of verse is in very safe hands. That he chose to declare poetry dead, without at first checking any one of numerous places for its healthy pulse, is therefore a matter of great regret.

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  • Reeves

    LOL, the ‘death of poetry’ is just like the ‘death of the PC’. People keep writing about both but, yet, both will outlive most of us :) It’s wishful thinking. Nothing more.

  • George McDowell

    Poetry has been dead for a long time, just as philosophy and theology have. So what? That isn’t going to stop lost souls from wasting their lives studying it. I say let them be, and stop belittling them for the curious intellectual pursuits.

  • mel

    A lot of contemporary “poetry” may just be verse but the old classic poetry from eons ago will never die.

  • Andrew Kuharevicz


  • Suvi Horan

    Poetry is dead.Discus.
    Who’s making all the fuss?
    We’v come a long way
    since Shakespeare
    but I’m still willing to throw
    the spear of poetry and critique
    humour and philosophy
    to the world around us.
    It cannot bind words inside us.

  • wageslave1

    Hi Musa – “doggerel” and “poetry” are not the same thing. Oh and I have a feeling I saw Kate Tempest at the Ashmolean – it was embarrassingly bad. Cheers

  • Suvi Horan

    The form of language I use
    will me amuse
    in the sound and rhythm
    of the words
    and satire observed.
    Your poetry may be better than mine
    or maybe its a question of style.
    If not a fan of doggerel and rhyme
    show us your different mind.

  • Dante Clause

    dead doesn’t mean that

    there are no poets left
    it means that the poets

    have left the old form behind
    something to do with cerebral
    and there is less than 1% of the world
    still appreciating it on at least a rate
    of once a year.

  • bananamana

    There is no substance to the discussion “poetry is dead”, “oh no it isn’t” (etc.). The whole thing is formulated in idiot media terms. The predicate “ dead”, here, can only mean something like “is unfashionable”. And if it is, who gives a shit?
    Neither pretentiousness nor lemming behaviour will ever die, it’s probably safe to surmise.
    But it would be nice to think that poets had better things to worry about than whether what they produce is fashionable or not, Lycidas notwithstanding.
    (Hey, how about that erudite-looking allusion there! – which actually comes from my O-level forced reading of as little Milton as possible.)

  • Mayda del Valle

    well according to an article that was published in the washington post the day after Obama’s presidential inauguration, poetry is dead here in the US as well. thank you for a brilliant response to a mindset that’s seems to be as prevalent across the pond as it is here in the US. an interesting one given that poetry evolved from a mostly oral tradition. sigh.

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