The Young Poets Society: Meet Britain's rising stars of verse
As the nation celebrates Poetry Day this week, Andrew Johnson and Kate Youde report on the art form's astonishing rise in popularity
Sunday 04 October 2009
"Poetry", said Philip Larkin, "is nobody's business but the poet's". He added, in typically terse Anglo-Saxon, that that everybody else could get lost. These days, however, he would have to accept that poetry is everybody's business.
In clubs, theatres, outside school gates, on radio and television poetry is riding a crest of popularity unseen for a generation. While modern verse has moved on considerably from the elaborate language of Shakespeare or Keats, the nation is once again in love with the spoken word that has rhythm and reason, if not always rhyme.
On Thursday the Poetry Society – celebrating its centenary year – will mark National Poetry Day by revealing the next generation of wordsmiths.
Here we publish exclusive extracts from the winning entries to the society's annual Foyle Young Poets competition, for which it received a record number of poems. The number has more than doubled since 2003 and is up by 25 per cent on last year, to more than 6,000 people. And on Wednesday the winner of the £10,000 Forward Prize, Britain's biggest poetry competition, will also be announced.
Britain's leading poets canvassed by the Independent on Sunday said last week that the spoken word is enjoying a renaissance. The reasons, they argue, vary from the influence of rap, the greater accessibility of poetry via the internet, and the growth of creative writing courses.
They added, however, that the boom was built not on the page, but on live performance in clubs and theatres. "I am told that poetry is not doing so well in bookshops and things like this," the poet Benjamin Zephaniah said. "I am told in school children are not memorising poetry like they used to. But outside of school, sometimes literally outside the gate, in the performance scene poetry is absolutely thriving. If you look at most cities on most nights of the week there are these poetry nights, slams. It might be true that children are not reading as much poetry as they used to, but they are writing it."
The poet Fleur Adcock added: "It's moved from the page to the stage. When I started, it was all about books, but these days readings are always full."
Ruth Padel, a former chair of the Poetry Society, said that poetry festivals, readings and groups are all on the increase. "It is in a very good state. I think people are rediscovering it. If you go to literary festivals there are so many people who really care about writing and reading."
Geraldine Collinge, director of the performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes, which puts on readings across the country, said there had been an "incredible growth" in recent years. Attendance this year at the organisation's events has more than doubled since 2007 to 7,567, while participation in its education workshops has leapt to 31,248 this year from 5,100 in 2001. The charity's turnover has risen from about £80,000 a year to just under £1m in a decade.
"Performance poetry used to be seen in pubs and clubs and now it's in theatres, in the main part of arts centre programmes, it's on the radio and there's more and more online," she said. "It used to be seen as an urban art form but now it's happening rurally. You can see it in a village hall. It's something people have really seized upon."
BBC Radio 4 is currently broadcasting a poetry slam competition, and earlier this year the corporation ran an acclaimed series looking at the nation's greatest poets as part of its poetry season.
The Manchester poet Lemn Sissay, who helped to judge the Foyle competition and who is poet in residence at London's Southbank Centre, added that people turn to poetry at emotional moments in their lives, such as funerals, weddings and births.
"It's something we turn to when we're emotionally naked and in need of urgent expression," he said. "There's something muscular about it. That's why it's in the Koran and the Bible. I was very impressed by the standard of poetry in the competition. And I hope all those who didn't win will continue writing because of the urge to do it."
He added: "Rap artists like the Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Tupac Shakur are poetry, absolutely. I believe poetry threatens the status quo. Whether it's Seamus Heaney or a teenager in their room, poetry is an expression of truth. It is there to express and explain."
Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, whose internet Poetry Archive has 175,000 readers a month downloading one and a half million poems, said: "I can't remember a time when poetry was so popular. But we have to defend the right of poems to be difficult. Everything in life worthwhile is difficult – get over it. That means writing difficult stuff, but also writing for readers who may feel over-challenged."
The Young Poets Society
Adham Smart, 17 London
good morning palestine
this is your captain speaking
from your window
look at us
the red and gray
we fly at you
all talon and tusk...
Phil Coales, 17 London
DELL Dimension V400,
with intel on the inside
and Matissean matte of terra-creme
plastered over the plastic that forms a
hastily rendered, terribly restored shell
on the outside, ...
Phoebe Power, 16 Cumbria
ShortMessageService is so 2two0 thousand0and7seven.
I prefer MicroSoftNetwork, OKay
but only when you've got Wireless
Leon Yuchin Lau, 17 Singapore
somewhere in december
I awake to find us with the sun
in our mouths
coagulating like yolks, our
folded into jilted corners, eyes
still papered with a dream
grown hazy by morning.
you angle yourself for some light,
propping your head up against the mottled wallpaper swirls ...
Hattie Grunewald, 17 Barnsley
tarmac and dark grey cement flowed over her skin
and her hair was the colour of street lights
and when he looked at her,
the cars rushing past seemed only to be going
at 60 miles a decade ...
Jonathan Wilcox, 18 Lichfield
It was not profound, exotic,
did not play
like saffron or zereshk
across my lips.
It didn't stay with me,
haunt me forever after,
show the scope of my life
in relief, like some storm
shot with static.
conscience didn't burn.
I didn't reflect afterwards
that he was about my age
and probably liked football too...
Hannah Locke, 15 Hampshire
Breaking the Ice
Me and my almost new/Five year old sister
were standing near a pond/on the first day of February,
amongst the first of the frozen flakes that year...
Bryoner Harrower, 16 Aberdeenshire
Woke and thrust pearls
through her ears,
bled her lips red and
scored tomorrow off
her calendar. Closed
herself up like an
oyster and found
herself by the
Thames, water hissing
if. The hesitation was
enough to send her
Nat Liu, 17 USA
Left-brain society and I do not
click like high heels
on marbled floors or pearls on broken string
diving to their deaths – not at all
like the victorious sound
of golden keys unlocking golden doors...
Bradley Cutts, 14 Suffolk
Us beaters, armed with stout
whack tree trunks and bash
Three pheasants flap up,
and beaks pointing straight ahead,
The shooters are waiting.
Ten double-barrelled guns ring out.
Pheasants spin and fall to the
The dogs race, eager
to be the first to get to the prize...
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