Over the last couple of months, for those of us who aren’t key workers, our lives have increasingly begun to resemble a Jane Austen novel; we take a daily perambulation and sit around at home, baking and reading. Or perhaps E.M. Forster is more accurate — after all, the value of a room with a view has never been more apparent than during these weeks when we’ve been confined indoors.
And it’s Forster who perhaps provides me with the best answer for when I’m asked to explain why we keep turning to poetry in times that elicit great emotion and uncertainty — times like the ones we’re currently living through. “Only connect” writes Forster in the epigraph to his masterpiece Howards End, and this, for me, is the principle at the heart of why poetry is essential to our mental and spiritual well-being, especially during a period in which we might feel less connected and more isolated than ever.
Good poetry helps unite us. Not just with the writers, with whom we can share our feelings of joy, sorrow, optimism, fear, love, loneliness, and who remind us that we’re not the only person to have gone through what we’re currently feeling. But it gives us a language with which we can communicate things to others. In times that defy normal expression, we can always turn to the poets, who are able, through some kind of literary alchemy, to describe even the seemingly indescribable.
And poetry also allows us to connect with ourselves. It asks us to concentrate on both what is written, and the images, memories, emotions that the words evoke in our own minds. A poem composed several centuries ago can make you aware of something that you’re experiencing at this moment. Or like Proust eating his madeleine, a poem can transport you to a different time of your life, a different place that may be long forgotten and provide you with comfort now.
It’s why I always encourage people (and myself) to try to read a bit of poetry every day, and to learn poems by heart when possible — we certainly have enough time for that now! You never know when you might find yourself in need of a pick-me-up from Emily Dickinson, some consolation from Auden, or just a laugh courtesy of Carroll, Lear or Wendy Cope. Recalling an old favourite can provide you with solace; discovering and learning something new can fill you with pleasure and rejuvenate your mind.
But reading and memorising poetry doesn’t have to be a private, solitary activity. Quite the opposite! Sharing and performing poems together can be a wonderful activity for the whole family. Below are six family-friendly suggestions to appeal to everyone. Only connect: that’s what it’s all about:
I found a ball of grass among the hay by John Clare - In this poem, John Clare doesn’t quite provide a snapshot of nature, but a series of dynamic, ever-moving visuals. In this way it’s a bit more like a TikTok video than a photo. Oh to be in the countryside and not stuck indoors right now.
On the Ning Nang Nong by Spike Milligan - Spike Milligan was a writer, actor, comedian and poet who wrote nonsense poems that combine some phrases that make sense with others that really do not. They’re all great fun to read aloud, and are a perfect introduction to poetry for younger readers.
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll - Here is another fantastic nonsense poem that lets all the family take a role when reading it. This poem is recited to Alice in Through the Looking Glass by Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the novel, Alice concludes that both the Walrus and the Carpenter are ‘very unpleasant characters’ – and , as it happens, so are Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314) by Emily Dickinson - In this poem, Emily Dickinson imagines Hope to be a bird that lives in the soul, singing eternally. It is an uplifting, reassuring poem that notes that while Hope has sustained the speaker through the darkest of times, it has never required anything in return.
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou - Because she lived such a full life herself, Angelou sets an authoritative example when she writes that life is nothing to fear. What is so remarkable is that it is a young child in this poem who is so defiant and unfrightened. An inspiring poem for these difficult times.
Macbeth (Act IV, Scene I) by William Shakespeare - The unforgettable witches of Macbeth concoct their fiendish potion.
Join Allie Esiri and the actors Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West for a live online event during Hay Festival Digital featuring readings from Esiri’s A Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year anthology. Register here. We have 5 copies of Allie Esiri's A Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year anthology to give away. To win a copy email email@example.com with your name and address.