First of all, let’s admit that poetry is made of language, so its power is conditional, dependent on which words you use and in what order. Its intensity and concentration offers potential power, and the potential to move, for good or bad, but its power is not universal, or guaranteed.
So the only way I can begin to answer this question is by discussing certain poems, and what they taught me. The first poem I remember reading was in an anthology titled Island of the Children; it was called ‘An Attempt at Unrhymed Verse’. I was about six. In this poem, the poet keeps trying not to rhyme, but she can’t help herself, and the lines warp and contort as she flinches away from her own instincts. My sisters and I (I am one of triplets) found this poem funny, and often asked for it at bedtime. If I thought about poetry at all, it was as entertainment, and I still think that poems offer the chance to play. Some poems, at least as I’m writing them, feel like enthusiastic puppies, while others feel more like austere, masked figures appearing on the horizon.
However, in whatever form it takes, if poetry truly takes root, it can become an obsession. Part of its power lies in surprising the poet’s controlled or conscious mind. In an old episode of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster tries to compose a poem about something other than his favourite thing – cookies – before finally giving in to what he really wants:
Cookie Monster’s poem, like Wendy Cope’s unrhymed verse, is all about both expressing and controlling desire (in his case, the desire for cookies). This is a powerful act. The first poems I wrote were one in the voice of my toy dog, titled ‘When I Am Left Alone With Newspapers’, and a poem about a fox escaping from some hunters. Poetry was transgressive and fugitive.
The second poem I remember reading was ‘The Lady of Shalott’, by Tennyson. I studied it in school, aged seven, and it mystified me.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
I could follow the rhythm and the story, but didn’t exactly like it. Why was the Lady of Shalott cursed? Just for looking out of the window? That wasn’t fair. I wanted her to have a happy ending, like the Disney princesses I knew. The poem’s sadness confused and overburdened me. When we were twelve, my sister Alex wrote a parody in which, instead of floating, tragically and gracefully, down the river, the Lady of Shalott exploded. Her curse felt ridiculous, and although I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, this poem taught me something about power, especially patriarchal power: its arbitrariness, its unfairness.
Later, I began to understand sad poems. When I was thirteen, at the end of summer, my baby brother, Otto, was stillborn. I lay numbly looking up at a bouquet of flowers, thinking something like: this feels terrible, and those flowers are beautiful. The words bright and futile repeated in my head:
A cheesy film called Magic in the Water flickered on the tv. At his cremation, I watched a small candle burning, and imagined the smoke of him rising through the roof.
Any poems I wrote in response to this were not initially about power, or certainly not about my own power. They tried to translate an experience of powerlessness and pain, and found, within that, encounters with raw beauty. I suspect that elegiac poetry either rejects the whole notion of power – of winning or losing as meaningful categories – or that it offers only the power to keep going, attending to things as they really are.
A year or so later, my brother Milo was born. Poetry can be about renewal, too.
At sixteen I fell in love for the first time, and love poetry hooked me like a gullible minnow. Poems were a necessity by that point. Death and love are perfect poetic generators, because they are transformative – you can’t wheel back from the changes they bring. The landscape intensified into a fever dream of hail and sun, deep woods, shadows on the sea and boomeranging, shrieking swifts in the sky. I was watching Six Feet Under, listening to PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom, ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’, ‘Good Morning’, ‘Daisies of the Galaxy’, and ‘Lucky’,and writing all the time. The poets I loved were T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Linda Pastan, and Wilfred Owen: Move him into the sun …
Later, I got into Emily Dickinson – her surprise, her quiet sharp energy, her wit – and the headiness of French poetry, especially Apollinaire. I loved Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Mina Loy, Lola Ridge, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bishop, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I agreed with Paul Valéry’s idea of poetry as a dance. I fell in love with an actual living poet, Ollie Evans, and read a whole raft of contemporary writers (such as Helen Mort, Sarah Howe, Terrance Hayes, Fran Lock, Bethany W. Pope, Roddy Lumsden, Mark Waldron, Abigail Parry, Alex MacDonald, Rebecca Tamás, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Tishani Doshi, Patricia Lockwood, Rebecca Perry, Warsan Shire, Amy Key, Shivanee Ramlochan, Tim Wells, Emma Hammond, Will Harris, Claire Trévien, John McCullough, Liz Berry, Hera Lindsay Bird, Sophie Collins, Fiona Benson, Jodie Hollander, Kim Addonizio, Emily Berry, Denise Riley, Nisha Ramayya, Amy De’Ath, Denise Riley, Sumita Chakraborty…).
Finally, I found Audre Lorde’s poem ‘Power’, which is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read, at least in the sense of expressing and opposing injustice. I wish that it didn’t have to be written. This is what I hope is true: that by attending deeply to language, poems can also help us to attend and respond properly to the world we’re living in. When you feel powerless, then you need a poem.
Becky Varley-Winter’s debut poetry pamphlet is Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula (V. Press, 2019); I’m from the Isle of Wight, live in London, and teach English Literature and Creative writing for various universities. A book developed from my PhD, Reading Fragments and Fragmentation in Modernist Literature,was published by Sussex Academic Press in 2018