Elitist, niche, convoluted. Poetry doesn’t always attract the most flattering of adjectives, yet often it’s the first art form to which people turn to at times of shared emotional upheaval.
With the best will in the world, poetry is something of a niche art form that few people enjoy as part of their everyday lives. But when it comes to occasions where showing emotions is anticipated – even welcomed- poetry seems to almost have an indefinable quality that sees people digging out old school books, searching verse online and summoning on their inner bard to express their and others’ feelings.
Most will have sent a birthday card with a pre-penned rhyme or a verse and a glance at the obituary section of a local newspaper often reveals loved ones honored fondly in rhyme and meter. It might be personally written or taken from a published work, but in some meaningful way it resonates with the bereaved.
“I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty.” – Edgar Allan Poe
Why is this?
It seems that poetry is read at times of shared emotional intensity, when people often find comfort in the presence of others who understand their feelings. It occurs at times of celebration as well as suffering, applies to the religious and secular, and appears to be universal. Everywhere on Earth human societies have found ways to mark the rites of passage almost all of us go through.
Poetry is often part of this ritualism. Consider the memorable scene in the 1994 film Four Weddings and A Funeral in which W H Auden’s Funeral Blues is read out to a congregation stunned with grief as a montage of the stark industrial landscape and drizzling rain runs over the top of the achingly beautiful words.
Rites of passage – weddings, funerals, birthdays, coming of age – ceremonies, welcoming newborns into a community – are all times at which people can be overwhelmed with emotion. The right poem at the right time of a ceremony can unite a room of disparate people in a way that both encapsulates and transcends individual feelings.
In a ritualized setting the poem also acts as a signpost, the place where people are allowed, even encouraged, to be emotional. This can be helpful in societies and communities where being emotionally open and crying in front of others is not the done thing. Poetry often serves as a pointer, indicating that the language used to talk about an individual and become distilled.
For people who haven’t read verse since they were in school (and maybe not even then), poetry can seem quite separate from newspapers or novels. In particular, poetry such as Shakesphere’s sonnets, in which language is so different from today’s usage, adds a sense of reverence to the occasion. There’s also comfort to be found in lines of poetry that might have been learned by repetition in schooldays.
Specific needs can be met with poetry. It presents a direct connection to someone loved and lost – a way of capturing a part of them in an art form, of remembering them in a specific way. With grief, it can form part of the ritualistic process of mourning. People still reach for something symbolic, a portal to emotional expression that is different to the everyday – poetry often serves this purpose.
“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”– Toni Morrison
Emotional health is complicated and it’s important that people are able to celebrate or mourn in a way that is natural for them. Poetry is often the art form that is reached for at these times because it cuts through the chaff of everyday and lifts emotions out of a place of almost shame and embarrassment, placing it at the center of the ritualization. It’s both part of the history of the human species and the rites of passage most people will experience whether they have poetry in their everyday lives, or, more usually, not.
Poetry brings something personal to any occasion. Here are some tips to help you choose – or write- your special verse.
- It may seem obvious, but does the person being celebrated or mourned (or both) have a personal favorite that means or meant a lot to them? Many people don’t openly flaunt their love of poetry, so it’s worth asking the question of relatives and loved one’s before, say, a wedding anniversary, birthday or coming – of – age- ceremony.
- Don’t be afraid to ask people who you know enjoy poetry for their help. Usually, closet poetry enthusiasts can’t wait to talk about their favorite poets. And try not to be swayed by what’s popular – if the language of Shakesphere seems to dense and doesn’t make sense, then don’t feel you have to choose it. There are many great contemporary poets whose work cover loss and love. When looking at potential poems, read them outloud to yourself and get the feels of the words in your mouth. Ask yourself if the poem moved you, and whether you enjoyed it.
- Anthologies, which are usually themed by subject matter, are a great source of finding poets that write in different styles. Your local library is a good place to start, but a simple internet search will also present a myriad of choices.
- The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org) is a great resource and allows users to browse by topic or poet.
- Don’t be afraid to write your own poem. If there is something you want to say specific to your loved one, give it a go. People will value the effort that you put into it.
- If you’re struggling to put pen to paper, start with a free-writing exercise: set a timer for seven minutes, note the name of the person you’re celebrating at the top of a blank page and then write everything that comes into your head, without stopping and without worrying about making sense. What you’ll be left with is a page of your emotional responses to the person, which is a good place to start. Consider the parts that capture the person or your love for them, pull these words or sentences out and then build your poems around them.
*In the name of full transparency, please be aware that this blog post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you).
Get your FREE ‘What I Trust’ Worksheet today!
Love this? Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter!