Poets hope to kickstart a teen revolution

Vision reports from the Poetry Live event at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where renowned poets entice teens to enjoy and nurture an enthusiasm for poetry

Booksellers will tell you poetry is the poor cousin of prose. It’s niche, it’s tricky to sell, and young people just aren’t interested.

“I’d rather read books,” said Jake Faulkner, a student at Dubai British School, “you can get involved in the plot. Poetry doesn’t really have a plot.”

“I don’t think I would seek it out,” said classmate Liam Kotecha, 15. “If I stumbled across it, I might be interested.”

On Wednesday, some of poetry’s best and brightest took aim at this indifference, hoping to convert it into enthusiasm. Writers including John Agard, Simon Armitage and the laureate Carol Ann Duffy took to the stage at GCSE Poetry Live, in an effort to persuade more than 200 Dubai teens that they speak their language.

“When I was growing up, poetry was the preserve of dead white men. But it has changed so much,” said British poet Imtiaz Dharker. “We are trying to bring people back to poetry. We want to take it off the page, and bring it to life.”

The UK-launched tour, brought to Dubai by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, offers recitals of poems on the GCSE syllabus to students. Teens are not only able to see the pieces performed live, but also to meet the poets behind them.

“Poetry is just the music of being human; it is just a way of experiencing the world,” Duffy told a hushed auditorium. “Even very ordinary things that have happened in my life will become poems. To me, it is just a way of being.”

Yet many fear that poetry has faded from mainstream life. In the UK, sales of poetry collections account for less than 1 per cent of book sales. Even in societies with a robust oral tradition, the lack of marketing muscle behind the craft means its quieter charms can be lost amid louder, flashier forms of media. Because of this limited exposure, said Agard, people can be wary of poetry and its perceived complexity.

“Poetry becomes this sort of rarefied thing; a special way of appreciating how words work,” he told Vision. “But it should be part of the whole fabric of living. Poetry existed before there were books, as part of our rich oral heritage - not just of one nation, but of the heritage of humankind.”

For anyone, the right words delivered in the right order can be captivating, he added; eye-catching himself in a jaunty purple hat and jazzy shirt.

“When I was growing up, it wasn’t the beat of the song alone that would grab me, it was the words. If you had Jimi Hendrix, back in the sixties, with a line; ‘Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.’ Or Procol Harum singing; ‘A whiter shade of pale.’ It is intriguing.”

Bringing poetry back into daily life through recitals is one way to seize the spotlight, said Dharker. The poet is also part of a campaign in the UK, which sees poetry plastered on the walls of London Underground trains for commuters to read. Such guerrilla tactics are a way to ensure poets’ voices are heard.

“We practically mug people with poetry,” she laughed.

Many of the poets paid tribute to the pivotal role played by teachers in igniting their passion for writing. Duffy spoke of how, aged 8-years-old, her then teacher would pin her poems to the wall of the classroom. And later, of the teacher that lent her own poetry collections to students.

For Agard, born and raised in Guyana, where the rolling rhythm of calypso was part of daily life, a magazine launched by his sixth-form teachers was gamechanging.

“When you see your magazine in print like that, at 16, you’re excited,” he said.

Even after leaving school, the boys who wrote for the magazine continued to meet, as 18, 19 and 20-year-olds, to drink, to talk and compare their newest poems.

“And that humble magazine produced about five professional writers, who are still writing today,” said Agard. “A lot depends on that teacher, who brings poetry into your life.”