Poetry is the language of Instagram and international protest. It’s the language of the streets and the self-styled upper strata. From high-end haute couture empowerment campaigns to high risk political activism, poetry has become the lingua franca of our age.
And it’s for everyone. Once the preserve of purists and the province of the literati, poetry has collided with the world of millennials and memes, the world of street protest and spoken word, and it’s more accessible and more available than ever before.
Poetry, in spite of the institutional pretensions that have long been associated with it, was always the place where angst-ridden teens and soulful introverts could find expression for their emotional lives. But, historically, it was never what one would call a career. The starving poet in his garret – the proverbial poète maudit – so tortured and alone, was the archetypal figure for this art form. Even T S Eliot, widely acknowledged as a titan of 20th Century poetry, couldn’t quite make ends meet.
But all that has changed. And that once deeply internalized art form has exploded globally, expressively. You know poetry has arrived on the world stage when fashion house Gucci is using Cleo Wade, a published poet, artist and actress, to drive their Chime for Change female empowerment project. Cleo’s tagline for the campaign is: “We do not change the world when we whisper; we change it when we roar” – and that’s the true superpower of poetry: it can be either elite or engaged, it can be raw or refined, real or rarefied, a roar and a whisper.
Corporates with clout and community collectives with pressing issues have come on board, using the power and immediacy of performance poetry to drive home messages – for hard sell or social protest. And what was once an isolated act of individual sentiment has become an industry – and a financially rewarding one at that.
Like the Beat Generation poets who changed the world with their words, a new generation of Insta-poets are pushing forward both personal and political agendas. And with self-publishing or crowd-funded projects the new normal, putting poetry out there has never been easier. R M Drake, Rupi Kaur, Kaveh Akbar, Lang Leav, Matt Abbott, Atticus, Puno Selesho, Ntombhi ya Mutsonga, Saeed Jones, Javier Zamora and others of their Insta ilk are using poetry to produce words of protest and purpose, yes, but also to power profits.
A line of persuasive poetry on a t-shirt or mouse pad can help bring in the bucks. A collab on a campaign with a big brand can help launch a career. Poets are fast becoming this millennium’s rock stars and pop gods. And the world wide web has given poets the power to weave their words worldwide.
Because poetry speaks directly to our new globalised age – it shares the omni-connectivity, the mobilising, democratising power of the internet. Poetry has the potential to serve as a great leveler, connecting unlikely people across great divides. Poetry gives voice, is transgressive and unafraid. It’s the language for this age. Whether it’s in the form of a quirky aphorism or a weighty pentameter, it’s still one of the most expressive, explosive forms of communication – connecting, always connecting.
And nowhere have we seen this more than through the AVBOB Poetry Project and annual poetry competition – a crèche caregiver in Limpopo, a Professor of African languages at UCT, a philosophy student from the Cape and a security guard from North West all find their voice on an online platform.
So, this World Poetry Day, 21 March, let’s celebrate the worldwide web of poetry!