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Sonnets in the time of social media

04 November 2016

Martin Wroe tells the story of a revival of interest in contemporary poetry

FROM a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last June, the news emerges that 49 people are dead, mowed down by a lone gunman. Four days later, on this side of the Atlantic, the Labour MP Jo Cox, about to hold a constituency surgery, is attacked and killed in Birstall, West Yorkshire.

As if the daily news wasn’t bleak enough — conflict in Syria, refugees drowning at sea, a bitter and divisive EU campaign — for some people, the confluence of these two violent episodes portended a kind of despondency. Into this, unwittingly, stepped a small American literary journal, Waxwing, which published an unsolicited poem, “Good Bones”, sent in by Maggie Smith. As a mother, the writer wondered, how could she explain to her children this world, which “is at least half terrible”?

Rapidly shared tens of thousands of times on social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, “Good Bones” offered to many the words that they had not known they were looking for — and a chink of light. Despite all signs to the contrary, “This place could be beautiful, right?” is how the poem concludes.

When the verse was composed in a Starbucks coffee-shop one morn­ing last year, Smith was not, she recalled, in “an exalted moment. It had nothing to do with any tragedy or event. It was one mother’s anxiety.” She was as astonished as anyone by the way the poem har­nessed popular feeling, and led to reprints of her book and the poem’s translation into many languages.

“This is not my little thing any more. It’s kind of a lot of people’s thing,” she said. “It’s just a blessing. I wrote my feelings about my children, and people are reading it in Lebanon. I’m kind of, like, ‘Go, little poem, go. Enjoy your travels.’”


IF SMITH is a living poet whom many people had not yet come across, Philip Larkin is a dead poet whom many had a vague idea about — a vague idea formed by his memorable assessment of parenting in “This Be The Verse”, about the faults of those who raised us, the faults we find ourselves lumbered with.

The morning after Mrs Cox’s death, the Poetry Society tweeted Larkin’s less well-known poem “The Mower”, about a man who accident­ally runs over a hedgehog while mowing the lawn. In no time, it had been read online by half a million people. In it, Larkin argues that we should be careful of, and kind to, each other “while there is still time”.

If there was any doubt that social media were accelerating a rediscovery of poetry as a way of saying things that we had not realised could be said, witness the story of Brian Bilston. His debut collection, You Took the Last Bus Home, is named after the first poem he posted on Twitter, and is among the year’s most popular poetry books. He wrote it, he says, before, he even realised that he might be a poet.

Bilston — not his real name — remains a bit of a mystery, and is happy to stay that way, for now. He had never thought that poetry was for him, until his followers started sharing his words. Funny, clever, and often poignant, his work took off even before some marketing genius rocket-propelled his reputa­tion by dubbing him “The poet laureate of Twitter”.

He is a perfect poet for the medium: versatile and economical, he subtly adapts his verse to the online form, making poems as Venn diagrams, as flowcharts, as spread­sheets, and sometimes writing quickly, responding to breaking news. After another shooting in the United States, he built a poem of pictures that summed up various countries: “England is a cup of tea, France, a wheel, of ripened brie.” Its title and repeated refrain is “America is a Gun”.

Familiar with Eliot and Larkin from his schooldays, Bilston’s poetic heroes are Roger McGough and Ogden Nash, and a similar lightness of touch has informed his style as his readership has grown. Typically, he says, people respond: “I don’t really like poems, but I like whatever it is that you do.”


WHATEVER it is that he does, his popularity is explained best in a line from the poet Adrian Mitchell, who introduced his first collection in 1964 by writing that “Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” Nearly 40 years ago, that became the maxim of the poetry editor Neil Astley — arguably the one person responsible, more than any other, for poetry’s current resurgence in the UK.

”Poems can be talismanic,” Mr Astley says, speaking from his office at Bloodaxe Books, the press he set up in his Newcastle bedroom in 1978. “At one time, you might put a poem in your wallet, or stick it on the fridge, but now you pin them on social media, and, sometimes, they go viral. It’s the cyber version of the poems we used to hand to each other.”

When he founded Bloodaxe Books, published poets, he recalls, were invariably white men who had been to Oxford or Cambridge. He believed that there was more to poetry than that small world, and, 1000 books later, he has proved it, introducing hundreds of poets to a wider audience: women and men from different social backgrounds and countries. Now based in Hex­ham, with the security of an annual grant from Northern Arts, he continues to edit, produce, and typeset about 30 titles a year.

None of them has been as influ­ential as his poetry anthologies, beginning with Staying Alive in 2002: a book of 500 poems inten­tionally aimed at people who think that they do not read poetry. It was endorsed by people whom everyone has heard of. “I love Staying Alive, and keep going back to it,” Meryl Streep said. “Startling and power­ful,” Mia Farrow said.

“The poetry police”, as Mr Astley calls them, lamented a dumbing down of the form with its publica­tion, but many of the 200,000 people who bought a copy found poetry that lifted them up. Further anthologies (Being Alive, 2004; Being Human, 2011) followed. The recent viral success of writers such as Smith and Bilston could be summed up in the subtitle that he gave that first collection: Real poems for unreal times.


“I AM looking for an imaginative use of language,” he says, explaining how he puts his collections together. “The primary thing is that balancing of intellect and emotion.” Language has been abused by the political and media cultures, he says, and has become a means of controlling the ways people think and behave, turning “passengers” into “customers”, and turning everything into a brand. “Poetry reclaims language for the imagination, taking it back from those who use it to bamboozle you into buying things.”

It is a theme that has also been noted by the American writer Judith Chernaik, who, 30 years ago, with two friends, came up with the idea for Poems On The Underground, a project aimed at bringing poetry to a wider audience by displaying them on the London Tube network. Six hundred Underground poems later, the project continues to introduce commuters to contemporary and classic poets, exhibiting 18 new poems a year and distributing free poetry booklets to the public.

“In such a commercialised world”, she told The Guardian, “I think there’s a kind of implicit pleasure in the poems just being there, not doing anything to you, and not forcing you to do anything. People can read it or not. Nobody is shouting. It isn’t a competition — just an offering.”


WHILE Mr Astley is not always convinced by the poems that social media elect for fame, their very popularity, he argues, is another sign that poetry is ignoring fewer people, and that fewer people are ignoring poetry. And there are other signs, from the explosion in perfor­mance poetry and the arrival of “slam poets” to the growing member­ship of poetry societies and festivals.

One of Bloodaxe’s most popular anthologies, Soul Food, offers “poems to stir the mind and feed the spirit”, addressing how “poetry can feed our hunger for meaning in times of spiritual starvation.” From Rumi and Rilke to Dickinson and Oliver, Mr Astley calls these poems “universal illuminations of the meaning of life, speaking to readers of all faiths as well as to searchers and non-believers”

“Wisdom, feeling, and integrity”, he says, “— this is what religion and poetry have in common.” But there is another, less promising com­mon­ality: the way in which both poetry and religion have a tendency to elitism and pretension.

“Sentimental nonsense!” a dis­tingui­shed literary academic snorted at a conference exploring faith and poetry, in response to my suggestion that the home-made poem of a bereaved granddaughter or grief-stricken son was often the most powerful moment in a funeral service. He wasn’t having it. Feeling must never trump form, nor senti­ment, seriousness.

Amateurs did not understand poetry, was his argument, and they certainly did not write it. For the “poetry police”, like the “ecclesi­ast­ical police”, it is always more import­ant to be correct than to be right, and to be accurate than to be true.

Soul Food, like another Bloodaxe anthology, Do Not Go Gentle: Poems for funerals, captures the elusive overlapping oval in the Venn diagram of poetry-that-is-serious and poetry-that-breaks-your-heart. If poetry seems more vital in days of political uncertainty — these “unreal times” — so, too, in days of personal uncertainty; and death brings the greatest uncertainty.


ALONGSIDE social media, film and TV also track poetry’s emergence as a way to explain life to ourselves, from W. H. Auden’s “Stop all the clocks,” in Richard Curtis’s 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral, to the closing episode this year of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander, in which the Swedish detective reads Tomas Tranströmer’s “The Half-Finished Heaven” at a funeral.

Good poetry, like good religion, becomes a compass to help us navi­gate the bleakest weather. The poet and priest Alice Goodman described this well on a Church of England blog for National Poetry Day: “Poetry gives us a way of reading the world. Through its cadences, through its different ways of simul­taneously conveying reason and feeling and the human senses, poetry makes it possible for people to express ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’.”

As Goodman’s husband, the poet Geoffrey Hill, who died this summer, put it in “The Triumph of Love”, poems “console” us with their particular gift, “which is like perfect pitch”.

Of all people, those of us keeping faith should feel at home in the realm of the poetic, in listening for that perfect pitch. What are the book of Psalms, the stories of Genesis, the parables of Jesus, if not poetry? Think of it this way, the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz said: “For a poet, a human being is a mystery and this is a religious feeling.”

It is true that, like religion, poetry can become rarefied and elitist, but, with a little shove from a film or a Facebook post, it is also finding a new home in the ordinary, where religion once was; when it, too, was a poem. The Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Mark Oakley, calls poetry a “soul language”. Introducing his new book The Splash of Words, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy enthuses about how it “opens new windows in the shared house of both poetry and belief.”

“Poetry is the language that most truly reflects the life of the soul,” Canon Oakley writes. “It is not for nothing that the Psalms remain one of the most treasured parts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition”; for what the theologian Walter Bruegge­mann says of a psalm can also be true of a poem: it may orientate you, remind you where you are going, or disorientate you, turn you upside down. But, some­times, it will completely reorientate you. That is when a psalm or a poem gives us another way of seeing, when it suggests another road to take.


Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.


The Revd Martin Wroe is a writer and volunteer priest in north London, currently co-writing The 95: Notes on life and love, faith and doubt, to be published by Unbound. For crowd-funding details, see unbound.com.

“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith can be found at www.maggiesmithpoet.com. Her latest collection is The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015) (Tupelo Press, www.tupelopress.org, $16.95).

You Took the Last Bus Home; The poems of Brian Bilston (2016) is published by Unbound at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

Staying Alive (2002), Being Alive (2004), and Being Human (2011), edited by Neil Astley, are published by Bloodaxe at £12 (CT Bookshop £10.80) each.

Soul Food: Nourishing poems for starved minds (2007), edited by Neil Astley and Pamela Robertson-Pearce, is published by Bloodaxe at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20).

Do Not Go Gentle: Poems for funerals (2003), edited by Neil Astley, is published by Bloodaxe at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20).

The Splash of Words (2016) by Mark Oakley is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

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