The Surprising Power of Poetry to Change Lives and Transform the World

September 1st, 2017

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

Winner of the TS Eliot award, John Burnside doesn’t think poetry is a frivolous act, another romantic — yet ultimately worthless — art destined for the dusty archives of history. Instead, he believes “poetry is central to our culture … capable of being the most powerful and transformative of the arts.” It’s important because it makes us think and cracks us wide-open to wonder, a way to re-engage in a world we take too much for granted.

Burnside reminds us that:

“When the purveyors of bottom-line thinking call a mountain or a lake a “natural resource”, something to be merely exploited and used up, poetry reminds us that lakes and mountains are more than items on a spreadsheet; when a dictatorship imprisons and tortures its citizens, people write poems because the rhythms of poetry and the way it uses language to celebrate and to honor, rather than to denigrate and abuse, is akin to the rhythms and attentiveness of justice.”

In today’s world we need poetry, now more than ever.

“As much as it has ever done, poetry renews and deepens the gift that most surely makes us human: the imagination. And that is as essential to public as it is to private life, because the more imaginative we are, the more compassionate we become – and that, surely, is the highest virtue of all,” he says.

Neil Astley, editor of Earth Shattering, Ecopoems, agrees.

“As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture,” writes Astley. And yet, “poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help.”‘

The anthology addresses both the ecocide we’re currently experiencing planet-wide, as well as work which illuminates the ecological balance of a rapidly vanishing world.

Astley continues:

“… poetry’s power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every listener or reader. …

“Anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change. And let them go out and read these kinds of poems to others, post them on websites, read them in school classrooms or on political platforms. Let’s have ecopoems on the Underground, in newspapers, on radio and television.”

This perspective is mirrored in David Constantine’s essay, The Usefulness of Poetry, where he writes the effect of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-bourgeois poetry is a “shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation”, for such poetry is, “to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world”. [source]

“If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction,” said Astley.

Not only can poetry reconnect us with the environment and the unfolding of life, but it can also reconnect us to ourselves and our cultural roots.

The Antidote to Gentrification and Marginalization of Youth

In 2016, over 500 kids from 55 cities and organizations throughout the world, came together in Washington, D.C. for the 19th annual Brave New Voices festival, a poetry slam that encourages young poets to write about the most pressing social concerns of our time — police brutality, gender equality, immigration policy, the presidential election and more.

Organizers of the event are quick to point out that poetry is one of the most effective mediums for the voice of marginalized youth to be heard. “It frames your thoughts in such a way that grabs people’s attentions and forces them to hear the things that you’re actually saying,” says Daveed Diggs, an alumnus turned promoter of BNV.

Founder and executive director of Youth Speaks James Kass adds that the power of the spoken word is found in its immediacy.

“That I, as a young person who is living a life that is in a moment of constant change, can write a poem that day and share it that night for immediate feedback is a big key, I think, to why so many young people from so many different spaces are flocking to the spoken word.” …

“Young people are hungry for a space of authenticity that is non-commercial and motivated mostly by the desire to be heard, and the desire to listen.”

Meanwhile, the Illuminate Literacy Project in Detroit, Michigan is helping urban youth maintain their identity under the pressures of rapid gentrification of their neighborhoods through the power of language.

Gentrification of impoverished neighborhoods can push the local community, unable to afford the rising cost of living, out of the area. As a result, the cohesiveness and culture of African American and Latino communities are threatened — with youth the main causality. The Illuminate Literacy Project gives these youth the tools to improve their writing with a variety of community programs, helping the students to preserve their identity and unique voice during swift change.

Ultimately, as these young people come of age and become journalists, poets, business writers and marketing professionals, they will make their voice heard around the world as a reflection of their unique communities at large.

Article sources:

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About the author:

Carolanne Wright

I’m Carolanne — a writer, chef, traveler and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability, organics and joyful living. It’s good to have you here. If you would like to learn more, connect with me at or visit

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