New wave of poetry explodes around the globe
There’s a fresh, cool world of poetry out there, as David Gorin discovers
Think poetry is passé, an outdated art which peaked in the 18th century? Think again. The poetry scene is exploding around the globe, as competitions abound, workshops gain appreciation, and café readings evolve into safe spaces for hipsters to sip craft gin and discourse on the state of their souls.
And no longer is it de rigueur for poetry to contain literary complexity, expansiveness and enjambment, lyricism and rhythm, packaged in conservative book-bindings and hidden in narrow but hallowed sections of bookstores. Want to share your innermost thoughts, or connect with poetry lovers in faraway lands? Now (with apologies to the greatest poet of all, Shakespeare), the world is your oyster.
The web has democratised communications platforms for today’s digital media poets, and YouTube, Tumblr and especially Instagram have synthesised Tumblr-Insta-poetry as a 21st-century comfort blanket in which fridge magnet phrases and pithy memes have replaced metaphors and meter to match today’s attention spans. Says Damian Barr, author and host of the UK-based Literary Salon: "Poetry as a meme, as a picture even, reaches people on Instagram. Instagram is as suited to poetry as Twitter is to an argument." It’s clearly what younger millennials and older Generation Z readers want: the poetry-reading incidence among American 18-to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the past five years, with surging popularity among women and people of colour.
No more do poets have to be poor, like TS Eliot, Oscar Wilde, or William Wordsworth, who wrote that "poetry has never brought me enough money to buy shoestrings". Today, commercial poetry is serious business. Thirty-year-old Insta-poet Cleo Wade has her mantras on billboards for Gucci and Nike. Canadian Rupi Kaur was just 22 when she hit the New York Times bestseller list with her first published collection, milk and honey (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014), which has now sold 3.5-million copies and overtaken Homer’s The Odyssey as the biggest-selling poetry book. Kaur has 3.8-million Instagram followers and, rock star-like, embarks on regular global tours. She admits she views her art as running a business.
Another superstar social media poet, Cape Town-based Iain S Thomas, proudly says the same thing: "I work a nine-to-five job." He, too, travels regularly to sign books and give readings across the US, the UK and in Asia. "It’s exhausting, but rewarding."
Thomas was one of the forerunners of the commercial Insta-poetry genre, which abounds in clichés and incorporates sketches, symbols, spaces and simple-word anthems in a self-help mash-up of affirmation and motivation, observations and inner dialogue. The pieces are unassuming, unintimidating embraces for people wanting to feel seen and their angst to be heard — and becalmed. Thomas’s poetry does that: "It takes time. / But time is all it takes. / Not your heart. Not your life. / Just time."
Insta-poetry shouldn’t be underestimated: Thomas has been quoted by Prince Charles and Steven Spielberg, among other notables. But how seriously should we regard this pop psychology derivative that may soothe some people’s spirits but lacks exploration and artistic soul? Can emotional platitudes, expressed in tweet-like lower-case-only text accompanied by line drawings, be classed as literature?
In conversation with Thomas after the launch of his latest compilation, Every Word You Cannot Say (Andrews McMeel, 2019), I admit I’m unsure how to evaluate his creation. "Initially, I didn’t identify my own work as poetry," he says. "Is it poetry? I don’t know."
But another Insta-poet, Amanda Lovelace, is adamant and defiant, writing in The Princess Saves Herself in This One: "fill in the blank: / poetry is _______/ anything that you want it to be."
The living word
A definition of poetry may, then, be straightforward: poetry can be created by anyone with the courage to wear their heart on their sleeve, and to put that onto a page.
Or declaim it on a stage. Performance poetry is also thriving. An amalgamation of literary and performance arts, the spoken-word format may incorporate choreographed movements or rhythmic music accompaniment such as hip-hop — manoeuvres which sometimes stretch a flexible definition of poetry.
There is some meritorious poetry within the morass. On the YouTube channel of US publisher Button Poetry, Sabrina Benaim proclaims her anguish while performing Explaining My Depression to My Mother: "I am sleepwalking on an ocean of happiness I cannot baptise myself in / Mom says happy is a decision / But my happy is as hollow as a pinpricked egg, as high as a fever that will not break / And then Mom flat-out asks me if I am afraid of dying / No, I am afraid of living."
Her performance ends with a heart-breaking sigh. Perhaps this is powerful, eloquent theatre rather than elegant poetry. But it’s impossible not to be moved.
"Slam" competitions are a punchy subset of performance poetry. Slam poetry is often improvised, always opinionated, and intoned with exhorting inflections which frequently cannot mask shallow content. Passionate poetry still requires the root of thoughtful composition; the late, esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom loathed the movement, calling it "rant and nonsense … [it] isn’t even silly; it is the death of art". But slams encompass raw poetic purity, and their underlying principle is to challenge the very concept of hierarchical, authorised literary value judgments. Pioneering American slam poet Bob Holman considers the derivative a form of activism, and that slam poetry "gives a depth to the nation’s dialogue that you don’t hear on the floor of Congress".
Poetry, of course, is deeply political. Bob Dylan won a Nobel prize in literature precisely because of the powerful protests within his lyrics. For further evidence, watch well-known performance poet Rudy Francisco: 40 seconds into his spoken-word poem Rifle, he explodes, uncannily like Martin Luther King Jr in sound and appearance.
Unsurprisingly, his performances have garnered nearly 4-million views on YouTube.
SA’s poetry scene, too, is diverse and dynamic. "Poetry is truly alive in SA," enthuses Harry Owen, former poet laureate for Cheshire county in the UK, who hosts a monthly open-mic event, Reddits Poetry, in Makhanda. "Poetry was one of the primary voices of political protest during apartheid. Today it’s growing enormously as people recognise poetry as far more than political protest: it’s an individual’s voice as a human being. We’ve always had plenty to say, but now — especially through performances, open-mic events, and social media — we’ve found a means to say it and be heard."
Boutique SA poetry presses include New Contrast and uHlanga, publisher of anthologies and chapbooks by emerging and experimental local poets such as Koleka Putuma, whose Collective Amnesia won an international competition judged by recently anointed Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. "Collective Amnesia has been one of our bestsellers for nearly two years," says Jessica Smith of The Book Lounge. "Poetry has definitely been growing over the past few years, and we’ve seen this in our sales."
Online, extensive creativity can be found on the Badilisha Poetry X-change website. Run from a tiny office in central Cape Town, Badilisha carries poems by more than 500 pan-African writers, claiming to represent the largest online archive of recognised African poets.
The Afrikaans poetry scene, too, is thriving, with weblogs such as Versindaba carrying works by dozens of poets and showcasing bundles by established writers such as Nini Bennett as well as emerging talents like Pieter Odendaal.
Poetry festivals are also in vogue — even in countryside hamlets: this year’s Poetry in McGregor Festival drew 200 participants, including youngsters yearning to win the youth category.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. Life assurance giant Avbob’s annual poetry competition, now in its third year, has amassed 50,000 entries from nearly 12,000 wannabe poets, in all 11 official languages. With a fortnight still to go before entries close, 8,620 poems have already been judged laudable and feature on the competition website. I commit to entering, as research for this article. An uplifting message welcomes my participation: "Well done on entering the Avbob Poetry Competition! You’ve discovered the power of poetry to heal and hold us during times of upheaval." A few hours later my poem is politely rejected, not deemed worthy for online publication. I convince myself the judges are becoming more discerning.
Today’s thriving poetry scene reflects the world’s turbulence. Poetry readership and audiences are growing precisely because people seek meaning beyond the disruption of climate change, political uncertainty, social upheaval and inequality. Says current US poet laureate Joy Harjo: "We need something to counter the hate speech, the divisiveness, and it’s possible with poetry." Poetry, then, can be a beacon, as expressed by George Oppen in his poem, Route: "Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity / I have not and never did have any motive for poetry / But to achieve clarity."
Recent poetry volumes to wax lyrical about
Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma (uHlanga Press, 2017). Now in its ninth print run, this internationally acclaimed volume strikes devastatingly at SA’s past and picks at today’s scabs, such as in Black Joy: "We were spanked for each other’s sins, / Spanked in syllables and by the word of God. / Before dark meant home time."
Nobody by Alice Oswald (Jonathan Cape, 2019). Book-length narrative poem by the Oxford University professor of poetry which draws from Greek classics and mythology, and borrows the mood of The Ancient Mariner in a challenging, impressionistic but rewarding exploration of human relationships.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). Shortlisted for this year’s US National Book Awards, Brown writes from the perspective of personal isolation and stigma in troubled political times, combining poignant lyricism with searing anger.