Today is not only National Poetry Day, it is also my nephew’s 9th birthday. This may seem less significant to you than it is to me, but in truth the latter can tell us something about the value of the former.
National Poetry Day (NPD) is an initiative of the Forward Arts Foundation; the stated aim of the day is to promote the enjoyment, discovery and sharing of poetry. In short, it’s a day when we make it clear that we value the fact that poetry exists in the world and what is a birthday if not a day to celebrate a person who we are glad to share the planet with?
I think for poets, today is something of a vindication. It’s a chance to show off all that we care about and prove that we’re not (entirely) mad to have chosen to spend our days in the pursuit of the perfect line, the most fitting word or the most dramatic line break. On your birthday, presents are chosen for you, and they represent your own tastes and interests. In both cases, it’s a chance to celebrate the unique, to honour the weird little star of something that matters to us.
I suppose the day also goes some way to addressing whether poetry matters. For me, of course it does, but I think that it does for everyone. Even people with only a passing interest in literature may seek out a poem when facing extremes of emotion – at a wedding, for example, or a funeral. When the heart breaking photos of refugees reaching Europe were published by news outlets, poems such as Home, by Somali poet Warsan Shire were shared widely on social media because somehow, the words “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark” could articulate something that we found it hard to wrap our minds around. I was struck, also, that the Chilcot Report on the enquiry into the Iraq war quoted Virgil’s Aeneid, as if there were things that needed to be said that only a poet could say.
People may turn to poetry in times of extreme emotion but the truth is, the magic of words can be used at any time to make us feel happy or sad, take us to new worlds and find new words to articulate our experience. In the same way, I may take the opportunity to show my nephew just how much I love him on his birthday, but I love him every day of the year. NPD goes some way to demonstrating that you don’t have to wait until you are at a loss for other words to reach for poetry, just as you should never, ever wait to tell someone how much you love them.
I wondered, when I started this post, whether I could actually tie National Poetry Day with my nephew Jack’s birthday. In writing about them together, I feel I understand both a little better. Just like a birthday, National Poetry Day is a chance to celebrate something special that we value. Just like poetry, Jack shows immense kindness and a real curiosity about the world. Celebrating both together fits a lot better than I imagined. I am looking forward to discovering new writers amongst the poems shared today and equally I can’t wait to see my nephew and present him with the bag of gifts I’ve chosen for him. There are some books in there that I know we’re going to love reading together.