Happy Thanksgiving

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Some poets dislike National Poetry Day. ‘Doesn’t poetry happen every day?’ they say. Yes, of course it does. Of course it does. But here’s a secret, from the woman who used to be the director of NPD. The following is not an interesting story for the press: POETRY HAPPENS AGAIN TODAY, JUST LIKE YESTERDAY.

National Poetry Day flashes poetry in front of the public eye, like a matador’s cape, to remind them of the rich ecology that exists all year round. It signposts all kinds of poetry. It makes poetry silly and approachable, because a lot of people find it unapproachable. It shines a spotlight on village hall events and big national events. It means that millions of schoolchildren study contemporary poetry, in depth and with good resources, every year.

The very reason we have all this coverage is that for twenty-one years, National Poetry Day has been waving a flag for poetry. It isn’t solely responsible for the attention that poetry is receiving nowadays, nor for its good health – but it has helped a lot. It takes months to set up; it is run by people who believe in the power of poetry. We don’t need their permission; we may not even need their help to bring attention to the wildly colourful range of events that happen all over the UK all the time; but if you are involved in poetry, then National Poetry Day is a day you can own and celebrate in good faith; something you can give thanks for.

I know this, because for six years I ran it. I publicised events all over the UK, I travelled from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth. I was never based in London. I never hired actors to read poems and I don’t like to (but a lot of people do). I used the NPD blog and publicity to raise the profile of some poets, but had to bow to the press who simply will not feature people that their audience have never heard of. Each news outlet has its own audience to think of and to serve. Does it do any good for poetry; not for YOUR poetry perhaps, but for poetry in general? Yes, I think it does. If the poems you want to hear aren’t being heard, then go and hand them out at the local library. If you’re annoyed at hearing the same voices on the radio, pitch another idea.

I have nothing to do with NPD now, and didn’t leave it on good terms. But I love what they are doing now, and I love Anthony Burrill’s striking graphics for the day. So when I hear, “What does LIVE LIKE A POET mean anyway?” this is my answer.

It means this: pay attention. Talk about your experience of life at the deepest level, not just small talk. Listen to others’ versions of the same experience. Be open to excitement, joy, anarchy and grief. Talk about the difficult stuff. Love each other a little. Stand up for what you believe in. Do not accept that life must be lived on the superficial level, or that our relationships with our colleagues and neighbours must be polite and unreal. Remember that beyond the necessities of breadwinning, getting the kids to school and battling the M6 traffic jams, there is a level of conversation in which not only you, but everyone else is interested. Life is large, and poetry is large enough to hold it. That’s what LIVE LIKE A POET means to me.

National Poetry Day happens once a year. Christmas happens once a year. Yes, I know you don’t want to sit on the sofa with Great-Aunty Deirdre because she smells and she eats all the trifle. You may not feel easy with her; but she’s family. We’re family. Happy National Poetry Day.

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

4 thoughts on “Happy Thanksgiving

  1. As an English teacher, NPD is a rare and beautiful chance to get away from the stress and strain of endless assessment frameworks and grades and to do something exciting, fun and infinitely more valuable in the long run. The resources NPD provide always tick these boxes and the work that the pupils do never feels like work! They engage with their own experiences of the world, empathise with others and communicate all this in a way that they didn’t think ‘belonged’ to them. They are richer human beings as a result.
    Do we ‘do’ poetry at other times? Of course we do, but never is it truly for its own sake in the way that it feels on NPD. It also allows for us teachers to show that there is a point to all this ‘classroomness’ beyond good grades. They discover something about us, and we them. Sometimes we even discover something about ourselves, together. Because that’s what poetry – and NPD – is for, I suppose.

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