William Sieghart CBE, the founder of National Poetry Day and the charity behind it, the Forward Arts Foundation, tells how his initiative has grown and how poetry’s reception has changed since 1994.
Nearly 30 years ago, I started National Poetry Day with the dream of championing our nation’s love for poetry and highlighting its place in our cultural heritage. In the years since, it has grown into the UK’s biggest festival of words and performance.
But the landscape for poetry has changed in so many ways over the years, and this National Poetry Day has a special resonance because of the strange circumstances we find ourselves in. After so many months of separation and isolation from each other and with no clear resolution ahead, our collective will is challenged and our need for succour deepening and unabated.
How can poetry help? For a number of years I’ve been offering a Poetry Pharmacy where people come and tell me their worries and I try and find them a poem that might aid them. During lockdown I’ve been approached daily by requests for assistance; poems for NHS workers, for care leavers without families to support them, for the lonely, the elderly, the anxious and those struggling to get by.
And every day I’ve seen social media flooded with poetry sent to inspire, to support, to connect and commune. I’ve seen pictures of whole poetry walls in London and a planned festival over the next few months of poetry in public spaces across Kensington and Chelsea.
Why has poetry been so in demand? Because it provides us with an expression of how we feel, often more elegantly worded than we could manage ourselves and gives us a sense of complicity, a sense of no longer being alone in our thoughts or our lives. And if those poetic thoughts were composed hundreds of years ago, then people have always felt this way, our problems are universal and are normalised. We are no longer alone. This is no trivial thing in our increasingly secular existence. With the additional separation of lockdown, our chances to unravel our psyches and share our difficulties are limited. Sharing these poetic salves has become a way of helping others.
Early on in lockdown I was approached by the actress, Emilia Clarke, who had miraculously survived two aneurisms and was helped in her recovery by reading The Poetry Pharmacy. She wanted to ask some leading actresses and actors to record some of the poems and prescriptions from my book and post them on her Instagram account to her 27 million followers to help them with their anxieties during lockdown. She had started a charity, sameyou.org, for sufferers from aneurisms and brain injuries and having lost my sister to an aneurism, I was keen to help.
When I last looked, the posts had had over 30 million views, the most intense and far-reaching poetry broadcasts I’d ever seen. And it confirmed to me once again the healing power of poetry in the most difficult of times.
This National Poetry Day, feel free to post, paint, broadcast and share poetry in any way you see fit. There’s never been a more appropriate or receptive moment.
William founded the Forward Prizes in 1992 and National Poetry Day in 1994. He was responsible for the 2013 Sieghart Report on libraries and e-books. He prescribes poetry for various ailments of the spirit on BBC Radio Four and at festivals across the nation: his best-selling anthologies include The Poetry Pharmacy and Poems of the Decade: an Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry.