Under the olive trees, bodies and blankets

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Why Poetry Matters

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

— William Carlos Williams


Compared with other academic subjects, literature (and especially poetry) is often perceived as less important. Where degree courses in modern languages or science, for instance, often pave the way to subject-specific professions and some level of financial stability, employment options and salary expectations for literature graduates can be much less predictable. In a capitalist society, which overvalues financial wealth and depends upon consumerism for survival, it can be difficult to make sense of or endorse educational pursuits that do not have clear pathways to paid employment. However, I’m yet to meet a poet for whom money is a predominant incentive.

With only 11.5 percent of professional writers in the UK today earning their income solely from writing (prospects.ac.uk), it is easy to understand why the pursuit of careers in writing, and particularly in poetry (the least financially secure of all), are considered by many not only seriously risky but foolish and fanciful. Insufficient as writer’s salaries often are, though, writing and publishing poetry can have other enormously desirable benefits. Like all forms of art, well-crafted poetry’s usefulness and value resides most significantly, I believe, in its facilitation and promotion of individuality and its capacity to interrogate overt and covert systems of power. As John F. Kennedy asserts in his famous eulogy to Robert Frost, ‘The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state’ (1963). Well known poems such as Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ (1978) and Adrienne Rich’s ‘What Kind of Times are These’ (1995) along with more recently published pieces such as Ilya Kaminski’s ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ (2013), serve as powerful testament to this insight.

So effective a device is poetry for addressing socio-political injustice and offering support and hope to those stifled by systems of inequality and oppression, that many authors across the globe are forced to write and publish under the ever-present threat of exile, imprisonment, torture, and death. In 2016, Syrian poet Mohammad Bashir al-Aani and his adult son were executed by Islamic extremists after being accused of apostasy, and throughout history there have been many suspected and confirmed assassinations of writers, including Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda and Generation of ’27 member, Federico García Lorca. These are just a few known cases at the tip of a large iceberg; there are likely many more that never make it into the news.

Being born into one of the most socio-politically liberal societies in the world means that, unlike untold numbers of writers today and throughout history, I am free to express myself and share my observations without fear of persecution or punishment; for this privilege I am incredibly grateful. And whilst statistics prove that, as a poet, I may never benefit from the luxury of a single career or salary, understanding the ways in which poetry can help us to notice and care about each other’s lives and experiences is enough to ensure that I will always feel compelled to read and to write it myself. I may never be financially wealthy, but if any of my poems unfold for another person in such a way as to show them something new or align with some aspect of their own understanding, I will feel immensely rich and accomplished indeed.




Lesbian Club
for Scarlett

We were eight years old
in a corner
of the playground
when we swore ourselves into
The Lesbian Club.

We didn’t understand
what being lesbian meant,
only boys weren’t allowed to join in.

That was all we wanted.



The Hotel Eden
after Joseph Cornell, 1945

I don’t want to write about the parrot,
the centrepiece of an antique box.
There’s no ignoring its snazzy feathers
and I can’t help wondering
about the string in its mouth. But why
should the bird get so much attention –
what about the other, less vivid things?




Under the olive trees, bodies
and blankets,
almost shadows
beneath the blue-white wash
of semidarkness.

In the distance, concrete cuts
into a starless canopy
fluorescent lights at each corner
unyielding silver
in the linen-wrapped dawn.



La Dorsal
after Cecilia Paredes, 2014

she is the shape of silence
twisted into cloth

she may have been screaming
when the photo was taken




A vision was born
as the moon turned red
and blood-light fell
on shadowed land,

it unpicked the stitches
which blind and impede
revealing fresh eyes
to seize restless dreams.

A vision took hold
and fought back with fire!

Freedom has no fear of the pyre.



Madelaine Culver (English) is a freelance writer and proofreader with a background in arts administration. Based in the North East of England, she is currently enjoying the region’s vibrant literary scene whilst studying for an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University.

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