Poetry and the Tyranny of Relevance

To celebrate 25 years of The Poetry Business, Leeds Salon hosts a debate in it’s hometown of Sheffield with a panel of teachers, poets, and literary critics.

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?

Guest Chair: Dave Bowden is an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas and a writer on culture.



Monday 4 April 2011


6:30pm to 8pm


£5 waged / £3 unwaged


useful reading:

salon partners:

The Poetry Business is a poetry publisher and writer development agency. They publish books, pamphlets, audio and eBooks under the smith|doorstop imprint; edit a literary magazine, The North; and run Writing Days, masterclasses, residential courses, and a Writing School for published poets. They also run the annual Book & Pamphlet Competition.