Posted: 8 February, 2021

Is poetry the weapon of choice for a new generation?

Arts, Blog, Celebration, General, Guests, News, Performance, Senior School, Sixth Form

As we raise the curtain on Putney's annual Poetry Festival, we look at poetry's power to pack a punch.

Amanda Gorman at the 2021 Inauguration on Washington's Capitol.

Amanda Gorman at the 2021 Inauguration on Washington's Capitol.

The inauguration ceremony for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris gave poetry a moment in the sun when 22 year old National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman captured the collective mood with her striking poem, The Hill We Climb.  

In an interview following the inauguration  her national TV debut  Amanda told her audience, “Poetry is a weapon – it is an instrument of social change”. And with lines such as, We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation”, she certainly didn’t pull any punches. For Amanda, like many writers, poetry is about ‘truth-telling’. It is ‘brave’. Poetry gives its author the power to choose words carefully and use them to powerful impact. At Putney High School, we too take poetry seriously. 

Last year, Daljit Nagra, in his final act as Putney’s then ‘Poet in Residence (after weeks of readings and inspiring poetry workshops) attended as guest of honour and judge our annual Poetry Festival. The festival is an eagerly awaited highlight of the school calendar where traditionally the school comes together to read, to perform, and to ponder the poetic entries of their peers. 

This year the Poetry Festival will be, by necessity, an online affair, but the standard of entries shows us once again what a beloved artform this is. With almost 600 entries across the school, poetry not only has a fond place in our hearts, but it continues to go from strength to strengthMr McLaughlin, organiser of the event knows that, more than an art form, “Poetry is a vital way for young people to engage with the world around them and enter into a dialogue that extends beyond the confines of their own lives. In these challenging times, more and more people have turned towards poetry as a form of reflecting on what we are collectively going through.  While busy lives have somewhat been put on hold, the space poetry opens up for contemplation and meditation is more important than ever.” 

We are honoured to have as our judge this year, Dr Mary Jean Chan, author of Flèche and winner of the 2019 Costa Book Award for poetry. As usual, Dr Chan will be judging on writing and performance (entries having been recorded in advance and submitted online). We look forward to hearing her appraisal of poems among which are the evocatively titled, The Other PlaceTo All the AdultsHopes and Dreams.

As these titles would attest, it seems that this year more than any other, lockdown has made poets of us all, offering us important time to reflect and to create, inspired no doubt by our new-found isolationMs Jeffrey was the first to get the ball rolling when she curated a wonderful selection of Lockdown Haikus last spring with contributions from students and staff across the school. One year on, as we look longingly towards the end of yet another lockdown, the introspection it has allowed us has clearly been put to creative use. It seems poetry is good for the soul. Time for ourselves, tuning into and expressing our thoughts and feelings is usually time well-spent.  

This year we have published the usual compilation of written work for students, staff and parents to enjoy. There are also recorded submissions, even if the” live audience” is missing for our performance poets. 

When she took up her place at Washington’s Capitol, Amanda Gorman certainly had an audience few could imagine. She follows in the footsteps of another great wordsmith, the young American poet, Emily Dickinson, arguably one of her nation’s greatest, and known as a recluse. Dickinson wrote at the time of the American Civil War and much of work lay undiscovered until her death. Her subject matter and situation may not be relatable today, but her poetry offers a similar capacity to engage, to move and even to shock.  

From Homer to Shelley, Emily Dickinson to Jay-Z, poets are the voice of their generation. Jay-Z in his best-selling book, Decoded argues that rap and hip hop should be looked at as poetry, and claims that certain hip hop artists can and should be respected as poets. The book examines his influences and ‘decodes’ the lyrics, wordplay and stories that shape his work. Poetry can take many forms.  

So, it seems that every generation has its poets; some seeking solace, others to evoke and sometimes to provoke. Whatever the motivation for Putney’s many authors to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, sheer accessibility is breathing new life into an ancient artform. Self-publishing has never been easier, with a plethora of platforms available from literary magazines and competitions (last year we were proud to have a winner in the GDST Laurie Magnus Poetry Prize) to Instagram and the ever-popular YouTube. The modern poet can enjoy many forms of self-expression and amplify their voice at the touch of a button. Putney’s poets are wielding the pen, not the sword, but they certainly aren’t taking any prisoners. 

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