Joanna Miller is a former English teacher and subject adviser. She is the founder of Bespoke Verse, which offers a variety of poetry related gifts, including a ‘Print Your Words’ service for customers’ original work and favourite poetry quotations.To mark National Poetry Day’s 25th anniversary, Bespoke Verse is running Hidden Voices, a special competition for writers whose poetry has never been published in a book, a pamphlet or a magazine. Entries can be up to 30 lines long. The winners will receive a copy of their work typeset, designed, printed and framed.
The UK is a nation of poets and poetry-lovers: the government’s most recent Taking Part survey 2016/17 put the number of poetry-writers at 3% of the population, or 2 million people.
The idea that at any one time 3% of the UK population maybe writing poems (possibly in a battered exercise book) is hugely exciting to me. However, I cannot help wondering where is this enormous body of work and who exactly are these hidden voices?
At Bespoke Verse we have seen increasing numbers of customers sending in their poems to be printed and framed. Life-changing events undoubtedly inspire poetry on a daily basis: a grieving grandchild making sense of loss, an abandoned lover expressing hurt and bewilderment, a new parent vocalising their fierce love for a newborn, a bride and groom lovingly crafting vows for their wedding day.
To some of these writers, poetry comes easily. For others it is rather like wearing black tie; something that is appropriate for special occasions, feels a bit uncomfortable, and which other people appear to carry off more convincingly than themselves.
Many of the poems we print at Bespoke Verse are by people turning their hand to poetry for the first time. The work is witty, honest, cathartic and often written with a touching rawness. These hidden voices may not feel the need for external validation. They may not have particularly literary ambitions. They are inspired, like so many poets before them, by emotions such as anguish, confusion, gratitude or joy, and it is this instinctive drive to find clarity in poetry that fascinates me. How can we support this silent and unconnected community of hidden poets?
We all have a truth to tell but what is true to us (our unique view of the world) can be hard to articulate and even harder to share. Writing may begin in a diary, a birthday card, a Facebook post or crumpled lyrics on a bedroom floor. It takes time and motivation to amass the tools to compose what might be considered a technically skilful poem. Not everyone has that time, but I have always believed that the use of language to craft something deliberately and with care has inherent value, no matter what the level.
It comes as no surprise that 46% of children and young people turn to poetry in their spare time (National Literacy Trust report: A Thing that Makes Me Happy 2018). Teenagers are talking more openly about the extent to which poetry pervades their private worlds, of how they can express themselves more easily within the space offered by poetry. They can state their feelings more clearly in a second person conversation, and attempt to tackle the big abstracts in life – love, anxiety, sex – freed from the confines of essays, formal structures and external judgement.
This is where poetry becomes transformational. A poem offers the privacy to experiment, to heal, to explore.
The teaching of poetry has become more imaginative, accessible and well resourced. Poetry icons are no longer always the white males of days gone by. As a Secondary English Teacher and Adviser, I have seen how well-taught poetry lessons not only empower pupils but work as a miraculous behaviour tool for the disenfranchised – because for hidden voices there need be no rules.
The resulting freedom of expression means that poetry, so often a solitary pursuit, is also a hugely inclusive one.
I am aware that there is a certain irony in asking a ‘hidden voice’ to enter a public poetry competition but our aim is to celebrate this quiet unceasing creativity and to encourage all poets to recognise that they have something valuable to say. Winners will be selected from Under 18 and Over 18 categories.
We are looking for flair rather than polish. Entries may take the form of extracts, unfinished pieces, song lyrics or complete poems. They may have been written in a poetry group, a classroom, in therapy or in bed. Of course, the judges will be excited by the creative, the playful and the engaging, but most of all we are looking for a sense of truth.
With the growth of rap, ‘instapoetry’ and performance poetry, dramatically increased sales of poetry books, and the emergence of poetry rock stars playing to sell out theatres, there has never been a better time to encourage the UK’s two million hidden voices.