Poetry and the Tyranny of Relevance

Date: Monday 4 April 2011, 6:15pm (for a 6:30pm start) to 8pm

Venue: Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS (map)

Speakers: Michael Schmidt, George Szirtes, Michele Ledda & David Bowden (chair)


The appointment of Carol Ann Duffy – well known from her place on the curriculum - as Laureate and the controversies over the next Oxford Professor of Poetry have kept the sullen art in the headlines. Christopher Reid picked up the 2009 Costa Book of the Year for his collection, while Bright Star saw John Keats join Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath as recent stars of the big screen. Poetry performances are increasingly popular at music festivals and at gigs, and pop stars such as Mike Scott (of Waterboys fame) and Rufus Wainwright have even recorded musical interpretations of W.B. Yeats and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Yet it increasingly feels as if poetry’s renaissance is built on a constant rebranding of its relevance to our daily lives. Last year Andrew Motion accused Britain’s schools of patronising students by failing to challenge them with poetry which wasn’t “a poem about football for a football loving boy, a rap for a fan of Eminem, and so on”. Yet he himself famously wrote a ‘Birthday Rap’ for Prince William. Similarly whilst many others praise the therapeutic qualities of poetry in helping us cope with the stresses of the hectic, 24-7 modern world but recoil when poems such as Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’ have an apparently more disturbing message.

Where can you draw a line between opening up difficult and complex works of literature to an unfamiliar audience, and being patronising? Is seeking relevance a response to the challenge to ‘make it new’ for another generation, or can it risk losing some of the original value and meaning? In a climate where so much of academia and education is encouraged to demonstrate its impact, can or should poetry justify itself? What is poetry for and how should it be taught?

To celebrate 25 years devoted to the promotion of poetry, the Poetry Business will invite the audience to debate these questions with a panel of teachers, poets, and literary critics.


George Szirtes, The Burning of the Books (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Michael Schmidt, Collected Poems (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009)



As preliminary readings, Michael Schmidt suggests the essays On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Whitman, by D.H. Lawrence as well as Nabokov’s Pale Fire

In addition, we suggest the following: 

The virtue of verse, George Watson; Times Higher Education (29 July 2010)

The value of poetry, Michele Ledda; Battles in Print (5 November 2010) 

Only a sadist would inflict Dryden on our schoolchildren, Catherine Bennett; The Observer (10 October 2010)

Why don't we truly value poetry?, Philip Hensher; The Daily Telegraph (26 January 2011)

In praise of dead white men, Lindsay Johns; Prospect Magazine, issue 175 (23 September 2010) 

Aloud and proud: The new Performance Poetry, Holly Williams; Independent (18 January 2010)

Andrew Motion calls for poetry teaching to be broadened, Richard Garner; Independent (7 January 2010)


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