To celebrate National Poetry Day (2 October), our CEO Sue Wilkinson explains the unique ways poetry can inform, inspire and entertain readers.
Discovering poetry in libraries
I got my first poetry book for my 10th birthday; I still have it. It is beside me as I write this: The Golden Treasury of Poetry, selected by Louis Untermeyer and published in 1968. My grandparents and my uncle gave it to me and I can still remember being scared of the black and white line drawing of the angel which illustrates Leigh Hunt's poem, 'Abu Ben Adhem'. It is why I know the poem off by heart; I liked it but I never wanted to look at the page.
This was, I think, my first poetry book, so even though many of them are not poems I want to read now, I still have the fondness for them which comes from remembering how they made me feel when I was ten. I can remember crying when I read 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes; laughing at 'The Tale of Custard the Dragon' by Ogden Nash; shivering when I read 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' by Byron and, more importantly, getting up to draw the curtains and look again at the moon after reading 'Silver' by Walter de la Mere. This is, of course what poetry makes you do - look again at yourself and at everything around you.
That book started me on a journey. When I was talking to my mother about National Poetry Day and what we are all doing to celebrate it she reminded me that, when I was 11 and asked to write an essay about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said that I would really like to be a poet. I can certainly remember trying to write poems and I sincerely hope that they, at least, are not still lurking somewhere in my mother's loft in Barnsley.
The more poetry I read, the more I realised just how difficult it is to write, how amazing it must be to be able to write it well and how grateful we should be to those who can do so. I concentrated on reading it and I can still, in my mind's eye, see the poetry section in Barnsley library and remember the joy of reading first the anthologies then going to find the work of the poets they had introduced me to in order to read more. John Keats, Wilfred Owen, Ted Hughes, Emily Bronte, John Milton, W. H Auden, Sylvia Plath - just writing their names conjures up different stages of my life.
Learning about history
I studied history at university and for every period I studied I found myself turning to literature, and in particular to poetry, to give me new insights into the world I was trying to understand. John Donne, writing in 16th and early 17th century and trying to find a line to describe the amazement you feel when you fall in love, captures for us the moment when Europe begins to realise that it may not, after all, be the centre of the universe. 'O my America! My new- found- land' is what we all want to be to the person we love - even if the next line of the poem reminds me of why I would rather be it in 2014 than in 1653, when the poem was first published.
Sir Francis Drake's poem/prayer, first read when I was studying the Tudors, is still something I turn to when I have to push myself to do something difficult or risky. When you read it you are getting a glimpse of his mind, his thinking and his world; you are also getting a vision which can still inspire us all today. The challenge of reading lines like:
"Our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little"
And the inspiration of being reminded that in:
"losing sight of land
We shall find the stars."
The unique power of poetry
I am still trying to work out what it is that poetry does which all the thousands of novels, biographies and history books I have read and loved never quite manage to do. Reading a great poem is, for me, like peering through a key hole, or looking into a kaleidoscope. You put your eye up against the aperture and you see a whole other world: a world that shifts, changes and sparkles; a world that is different each time you look at it and into it. In other words, poetry continues to do now what The Golden Treasury started in 1969; for me, everything really does change when you read a great poem.
As part of National Poetry Day I have been asked to say what my favourite poem is. You know how hard I find this but one of the great things about National Poetry Day is that we are all "just picking one"; we will be able to look at the thousands chosen and find both those we love and new ones which we will cherish in the future. So the one I am picking today is 'Guarantee' by Philip Oakes. It is an unusual love poem and, I think, a very beautiful one especially the last two lines:
"You meet all guarantees
You are, as promised."
Let us know your favourite poem on Twitter as part of National Poetry Day.
Find out who won our National Poetry Day competition to win two tickets to see Alan Bennett, courtesy of Profile Books.
We're working with the Poetry Book Society to give reading groups access to the work of the Next Generation Poets 2014. Download three poems from each poet and take a look at specially commissioned reading group discussion notes.