Poetry and the tyranny of relevance

Sunday 31 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Lecture Theatre 2

The appointment of Carol Ann Duffy – well known from her place on the curriculum - as Laureate, and the controversies over the election of the Oxford Professor of Poetry, have kept the sullen art in the headlines. Christopher Reid picked up the 2009 Costa Book of the Year for his collection A Scattering, while Bright Star saw John Keats join Dylan Thomas, Allan Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath as recent stars of the big screen. Poetry performances are increasingly popular at music festivals and at gigs, and pop stars such as Mike Scott (of Waterboys fame) and Rufus Wainwright have even recorded musical interpretations of WB Yeats and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Yet increasingly it feels as if poetry’s renaissance is built on a constant rebranding to make poetry relevant to our daily lives. Last year Andrew Motion accused Britain’s schools of patronising students by failing to challenge them with poetry which wasn’t ‘a poem about football for a football loving boy, a rap for a fan of Eminem’. Yet he himself famously wrote a ‘Birthday Rap’ for Prince William. Similarly, while many others praise the therapeutic qualities of poetry in helping us cope with the stresses of the hectic, 24-7 modern world, some recoil when poems such as Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’ have an apparently more disturbing message.

Where can we draw a line between opening up difficult and complex works of literature to an unfamiliar audience, and simply being patronising? Is seeking relevance a response to the challenge to ‘make it new’ for another generation, or does it risk losing some of the original value and meaning? In a climate where so much of academia and education is encouraged to demonstrate its ‘impact’, can or should poetry justify itself? What is poetry for and how should it be taught?

Listen to session audio:


Sophie Hannah
poet; novelist; author, Pessimism for Beginners and A Room Swept White

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

Michele Ledda
coordinator, Civitas Supplementary Schools Project, Yorkshire; co-organiser, Leeds Salon

Dr George Szirtes
reader in creative writing, UEA; poet; editor; translator; author, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Michele Ledda coordinator, Civitas Supplementary Schools Project, Yorkshire; co-organiser, Leeds Salon
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