Why is poetry having a moment?

Throughout history, readers have been drawn to poetry in the context of political crises which fragment and challenge society
- Dina Gusejnova, Assistant Professor in International History

Poetry sales are soaring but why is the art form making a comeback? We ask members of the LSE community what they think.

On the last Friday of every month, Café 54 in the New Academic Building is home to LSE Chill – the School’s open mic night for budding performers.

During November’s event, Economics master’s student Sara Sethia performs a poem she has penned about identity.

For Sara, poetry is a creative outlet. It also helps her make sense of her thoughts and the uncertainty she feels about the future. “My poetry is about everything you go through as a 21-year-old,” she says. “As a young person, you’re always asked what you want to do for the rest of your life and often you just don’t know.”

Sara isn’t the only one turning to poetry in uncertain times. Research from UK books sales monitor Nielsen BookScan reveals that poetry sales grew by over 12% in 2018, hitting an all-time high. So, why is poetry - once thought to be a dying art form - making a comeback?

Times of crisis

Dina Gusejnova, an Assistant Professor in International History at LSE, is not surprised by the surge of interest in poetry. “Throughout history, readers have been drawn to poetry in the context of political crises which fragment and challenge society,” she notes, highlighting key historical periods when interest in poetry has peaked.

These include the popularity of Dante during the conflict in the Italian city states; the appeal of John Donne during the Reformation; Milton’s writing during the English civil war; the poets of Négritude and the plight of the African diaspora in the twentieth century; the work of the war poets during both World Wars in countries from China to the United States; Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Brodsky and the poetry of dissent in the Soviet Union.

“What connects these different examples is that, in each time of crisis, the charisma of poets seems to increase,” explains Dina. “This is probably due to the fact that they are expected to speak truthfully and across boundaries to people living in societies which are split along competing lines of allegiance – to patrician families, to political parties, or to different mutually exclusive values (a much-overused term).”

There’s no denying we’re currently going through divided and fraught times. As well as increasing political tensions, we are facing global uncertainty around the future of the planet.  

Hearts and minds

Michal Nachmany, a Policy Fellow at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, believes when it comes to climate change, sharing the facts is not enough to mobilise action. Instead, she thinks people need to feel an emotional connection.

This belief has inspired Michal to organise an event, Climate Change (And Other Stories), at the upcoming LSE festival, where concerns for the planet will be highlighted through spoken word.

“As academics, we like to tell ourselves if we get the facts right and tell the unbiased truth, things will miraculously fall into place. On climate change, it is clear that we have failed,” she says. “We need to make sure facts land on open ears, minds and hearts and to do this, we need to tell stories – not as a replacement for facts, but to frame and complement them.”

To support the event, Michal has enlisted spoken word artists, Tongue Fu. A group of poets, storytellers, rappers and comedians, hosted by poet Chris Redmond.

Chris believes spoken word is responsive to the moment and that - when we are faced with a barrage of misinformation and ‘fake news’- poetry can provide something genuine and considered.

He also points to the tradition of spoken word as an ancient storytelling technique and draws parallels with the modern propensity to share our lives and create personal narratives online. “We are into storytelling at the moment,” he notes, suggesting this could be one reason behind the growing interest in poetry.

An online connection

Social media does seem to have played a significant part in poetry’s success. One of the most popular poets of recent years, Rupi Kaur, started out sharing her poetry on Instagram. Likewise, prominent spoken word artist Holly McNish first made her name on YouTube.  

Social media both provides a platform for unpublished authors to share their work and for readers to access poetry.

Third year International Relations student Eileen Gbagbo, who has performed poetry at the Royal Festival Hall and the Southbank Centre, believes social media has had a big role.

“Poetry is diffusing into mainstream culture now and has become less highbrow,” she says. “Social media has made poetry much more accessible. For example, you can follow a poet on Twitter or Instagram and they often share snippets of their work.”

Master’s student and fellow poet Anne-Eléonore Deleersnyder agrees, adding that recent changes in the style of poetry – with a general move towards starker less flowery language – has also helped.

“There has been a stripping down of the vocabulary, structures and imagery in poetry. That’s not to suggest it has lessened in quality but it has become rawer with less focus on complexity and more focus on the emotions and message of the poem,” she reflects.

Diverse voices

The notion that poetry has become more accessible is shared by Angus Wrenn, a tutorial fellow at LSE’s language centre. Angus has been teaching Literature at LSE for 20 years and has seen a rise in poetry’s popularity during that time.

He thinks social media has had a hand in this but also feels changes to the GCSE syllabus have exposed students to a more diverse range of poetry, making it more relatable.

“Poetry today is much more diverse in terms of who’s writing it, the way it’s published and the ways it gets read,” he says, recalling how poetry taught in the 1970s focused on authors including Wordsworth, Tennyson and the First World War poets.

“The poets we were taught about were pretty exclusively male and white and the youngest poet we studied (although already dead for 20 years) was Dylan Thomas. Today, GCSE poets include more living writers. Women feature much more prominently and the dominance of white poets is much less obvious,” he notes.

According to the LSE community, it seems easier access to poetry, within a turbulent political climate, has reignited an interest in the art from, providing a source inspiration and truth in a time of uncertainty and misinformation. As Plato observed, ‘Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history’.