We’re coming to the end of National Poetry Month – a celebration that will have been marked by those who enjoy poetry and passed by blindly by those who don’t. And despite being a Lit Major, I used to be one of the latter.
At school, we were forced to study the works of Wordsworth, analyze Shakespeare’s sonnets, and read poetry from World War II. The western canon of “dead white men” they always warned you about? Completed it, babe.
So, when I first went to university and saw a compulsory poetry module, I panicked – I certainly didn’t choose to study English Literature as a degree because of my incredibly limited and incredibly white male experience with poetry in high school.
In eight years studying poetry at my school, we studied one black poet and the poem was about the white-centric curriculum 💀 At least they are self-aware 😭
— BENJI! 🐀 (@VOIDMADEJ) June 2, 2020
But that poetry module at university knocked me for six. Instead of being forced to study poems from an exclusive list of white western authors, we were actively encouraged to read outside the western canon. Even if we still wanted to study the more “traditional” poets, we were told to read criticism that addressed important race and gender issues I hadn’t even realized were present in the works.
The poem that had the biggest effect on me was “Strange Fruit,” a poem originally written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol in 1937, and then performed as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” as a response to the horrific lynchings that took place across the American South; the strange fruit of the poem’s title refers to the lynching victims who were strung up from trees by white supremacists.
I had no idea poetry could heave up such raw emotion in me – I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks.
That first-year module taught me that poetry wasn’t just about the poems I had studied at school. It sounds silly, but I genuinely believed poetry was just Elizabethan sonnets we deemed too complicated to enjoy, and poems about British Romanticism that detailed the beautiful birds and the breathtaking bees together in the darling British countryside – the only remotely interesting poem I studied at school was about young chimney sweeps in the Industrial Revolution, and even then, its author, William Blake, was still part of this restricted western canon.
I soon learned that reading poetry didn’t have to be a chore, and my favorite poems taught me something, either about the world or about myself. I devoured poems about the harrowing legacies of British colonialism written by first-generation settlers, and greedily consumed creations about the complexities of cultural identity written by The Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
My favorite poetry collection was about the political intricacies of Post-Apartheid South Africa and the dangerous reality of being queer in the country today; I will recommend Koleka Putuma’s “Collective Amnesia” to everyone I meet, partly because her poetry is a powerhouse force for modern feminism, but also because she uses Beyoncé lyrics in her poems. Enough said, really.
Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma to this day is my favorite poetry publication in the entire universe. Everything about that book was magical.
— •°•🤎•°• (@_lisacharity) April 25, 2021
As I was forced to look outside the tiny box I had put poetry in, I realized that it was never actually in a box at all. And without being too Love Actually, I realized poetry was, in fact, all around us.
Love it or hate it, the rise of Instagram poetry – including household names like Lang Leav, Rupi Kaur, Amanda Lovelace, and my favorite, Nikita Gill – was groundbreaking in introducing people who supposedly didn’t like poetry, to a new style of this genre. Even Beyoncé added poetry to her visual album (and greatest ever artistic creation), Lemonade – citing work from the Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire in the transitions between songs.
Yes, that’s Shire’s poetry at the start of Hold Up, taken from her poem, “Denial.” And yes, when my university supervisor told me she was actually good friends with Shire, I cannot tell you how much I screamed.
And poetry is still all around us. After reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration in January this year, the first National Youth Poet laureate Amanda Gorman gained over 2 million followers on Instagram. Her poem about her hopes for a divided America to come together once more was especially raw given that violent Trump supporters had stormed the United States Capitol just earlier that same month.
Through poetry, Gorman was able to put into words how America was feeling at that moment, as well as the rest of the world.
What a speech by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.
Did you know—she even once had a speech impediment as a young child.
Overcoming adversity is what makes us stronger and better in life. #Inauguration pic.twitter.com/sLdMrOrIH4
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) January 21, 2021
Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with enjoying the more traditional poets: Tennyson, Shakespeare, Wordsworth – they’re still great in their own right. And if I’m honest, I had a lot of fun squawking like an albatross when reading Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner when I was 13 in high school.
However, when I opened my eyes to everything poetry could be outside of the western canon, I realized how much it could teach me about the world, and how much I could learn from it as well.
I promise you, it’s not just dead white guys.
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