Is poetry for everyone?

Saturday 17 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Garden Room, Barbican Arts & Society

Poetry has been many things to many people. For some it is High Art, produced by an elite for an elite. For others, it is a populist form, allowing anybody of any kind the opportunity to encapsulate in memorable words significant moments and emotions, from love to trench warfare. In some countries poetry may still embody a whole civilisation, but there is a danger that in a more fragmented and individualistic society like ours, poetry can adopt a narrow instrumentalism, speaking not just to, but for, certain audiences.

As long ago as 1945, TS Eliot wrote in his essay, ‘The Social Function of Poetry’, that, ‘the social function of poetry in its largest sense [is] that it does, in proportion to its excellence and vigour, affect the speech and the sensibility of the whole nation’. Is this true in 2015? Does poetry speak to a whole nation, or indeed significant parts of it? Where the Bible and Shakespeare historically underpinned the development of the English language, modern Britain is so diverse that there is a plethora of different poetic voices, and as many different listeners. Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman says poetry has ‘rather connived at its own irrelevance’, and claims it needs to ‘aim to engage with ordinary people much more’.

So who are the audiences for poetry today, and what are they looking for? Is Paxman right, or is he missing the point? Poetry is now available in more ways than ever. As well as traditional print media, online resources like the Poetry Archive and YouTube mean texts can not only be instantly accessed, but also heard in performance, often read by their creators. Poetry events are increasingly popular, with venues commanding audiences of hundreds to hear both traditional work and emerging voices, while performance poetry and ‘slams’ have been a notable feature of contemporary culture for decades. In the context of such diversity, does it make sense to speak of a social purpose for poetry in Eliot’s sense? Or is poetry now a more limited genre, offering commentary on politics and gender and other issues, but not serving a wider purpose for the whole community?

Listen to the debate

Anthony Anaxagorou
poet, writer, performer and educator

Isobel Colchester
chief executive, Poet in the City

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake

Louise Johns-Shepherd
chief executive, Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

Richard Swan
writer and academic

Produced by
Isobel Colchester chief executive, Poet in the City
Richard Swan writer and academic
Recommended readings
Ted Kooser On When Poetry Became So Inaccessible Marcie Sillman, KUOW, 1 October 2014

Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

The often neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can't.

Andrew Simmons, The Atlantic, 8 April 2014

Is poetry dead?

Can a poem still change anything?

Alexandra Petri, Washington Post, 22 January 2013

Why don't we truly value poetry?

Yet again, a major literary prize has been won by a book of verse, and the genre has rarely been more popular. So why does it feel as if poetry is losing its way?

Philip Hensher, Telegraph, 26 January 2011

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