Stephen Burt on poetry and how it sharpens life

Stephen Burt is a poetry critic (surely that’s a rarity in the world of work!) He oozes enthusiasm for poetry as you’d expect—here’s a TED talk he gave a few years ago. It’s full of great reasons to love and share poetry.

by Stephen Burt – TED Global, 2013
adults / brains trust, watch+listen

Poetry, especially when it doesn’t rhyme, can feel out of reach. Its thoughts and feelings are often complex and personal and that can make readers feel like intruders rather than co-conspirators. But, when we can cross that divide and become part of the poetry we read, it lifts lives and sharpens our capacitates to think and feel. A couple of Stephen Burt's thoughts particularly caught my attention:

On the timelessness of poetry:

Poems are easy to share, easy to pass on, and when you read a poem, you can imagine someone's speaking to you or for you, maybe even someone far away or someone made up or someone deceased. That's why we can go to poems when we want to remember something or someone, to celebrate or to look beyond death or to say goodbye, and that's one reason poems can seem important, even to people who aren't me, who don't so much live in a world of words.”

On understanding poetry:

” … usually, you can't know [if you have understood a poem]. You never know. You can't be sure, and that's okay. All we can do is listen to poems and look at poems and guess and see if they can bring us what we need, and if you're wrong about some part of a poem, nothing bad will happen.”

Stephen Burt's recitations are beautiful and complex, suited to an audience with a taste for poetry. Perhaps you’re like me and also enjoy something more accessible? This poem named Freedom was written by a South African child called Moagi:

When I am old I would like to have
a wife and two children
a boy and a girl and a big house
and two dogs and freedom
my friends and I would like to meet together.

So much hope in just a few lines—so much motivation and determination. Love it. And then for days when you just want a laugh there’s this playground chant* by that most prolific writer of cheeky poetry, Anon:

The boy stood on the burning deck,
His feet were full of blisters;
The flames came up and burned his pants,
And now he wears his sister’s.

Not exactly high brow stuff—but still, as Burt says in the video: “easy to share, easy to pass on, and … you can imagine someone’s speaking to you.”

Both of those poems came from A World of Poetry, selected by Michael Rosen. It’s out of print now but you might like to check out this collection of lovely poetry anthologies for more choices.

* The version that Joan and her brothers used to chant is slightly different 😊 :

The boy stood on the burning deck,
The deck was made of glass;
He tried to do a somersault,
And landed on his ...
ah now, don't be mistaken, don't be misled,
He tried to do a somersault and landed on his head!