A few months back I read about a UK poet who was driving around in a secondhand ambulance and ‘prescribing’ poems to patients to fit their current ailments. I looked into this and found the blog of the Emergency Poet, which like my own is hosted by WordPress. A recent interview with the woman behind the idea, Deborah Alma, appeared in Write out Loud last week.
I think Deborah’s method of bringing poetry to the wider public is a great one. In my experience of working with children I find that of all the age groups, under tens are the most open to trying new things, including poetry. Teenagers can be of two minds.
When I ran my most recent creative writing workshop from March to July this year some of them felt that ‘anyone can rhyme’ and in a sense they have a point. I’ve looked around at poetry groups online and more often than not they are dominated by novices trying out a few rhyming stanzas and looking for feedback. My impression of this type of ‘social poetry’ can be summarised by a memory of teaching poetry to my non-native English speaking students in Japan. I would write a word on the whiteboard, such as ‘sky’ and get the students to brainstorm words that rhymed with it. They would vote on the best word and we would set aside a pair. I would then repeat the process until we had, say, five pairs of rhyming words. I would then put these in a column at the right hand side of the board and explain to the students that they needed to create a suitable sentence ending with the chosen words. This had the double learning objective of teaching them rhyming poetry and highlighting the difference between constructing a sentence in English (left to right across the page) compared with Japanese (right to left top to bottom of a page). Outcome? Their poems were a lot more inventive and insightful than many of the so-called rhyming ‘poems’ written by native English speakers I’ve found on some online poetry groups!
So if poetry isn’t necessarily about sharing one’s creative vision with the world, then what is the purpose of it really? I suppose essentially it is about communication and expression, whether on a rudimentary or an advanced level. It can make somebody feel uplifted, sad, angry, bored. It can make someone feel included; either through voicing their opinion of the poem, or by relating to the poet. The Emergency Poet talked of helping people to overcome barriers relating to how poetry is perceived, or how accessible it is. I find her work with people living with dementia especially inspiring. If poetry can reach a point in a person’s mind that other forms of expression cannot reach then what’s more important than that?