Rhyme time

Poetry - Helena Smith discovers that war and strife are friends to great verse

Prosaic observations first: poetry thrives in times of trouble. To the canon of verse that proves this point, we must now add 101 Poems to Keep You Sane, an anthology whose cover portrays a bathtub and whose promotional blurb boasts that the book "provides a cure, or at least a consolation, for every modern misery". Since its publication three months ago, this crisply packaged tome listing poems by type of crisis (such as "Bad Hair Day" and "First Wrinkle") has already sold more than 100,000 copies.

Little wonder, then, that its editor, Daisy Goodwin, believes the poem may well have replaced the modern prayer. Forget rock'n'roll, the last memorable moniker to be attached to the art form. "Poetry," says Goodwin, "is the new prayer. As we turn away from organised religion we need other ways to express ourselves in times of emotional distress." Poets may not like the way she markets their work, but her last comfort anthology, 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, also became a quiet bestseller.

If, as Tony Harrison, our most public of poets, has pointed out, every poem is a "momentary defeat of pessimism", then the act of reading is a momentary defeat of our very own dark forces. As we take in the life-affirming words, we realise we are not alone. All of which might help to explain the present revival in verse, not least that thrown up by war.

Bringing poetry to the masses is not a new theme. For 15 years now, subterranean strap-hangers, subjected to otherwise slavishly sadistic conditions on the London Tube, have been able to take solace in the Poems on the Underground project. This venture, in promoting what Coleridge snappily defined as "the best words in the best order", has been so successful that subways in New York, Dublin, Paris and Moscow have followed suit. In all five cities, passengers say they look to the poetry as an essential and quotidian part of their emotional survival kit - what Joseph Brodsky called "the soul's search for its release in language".

This year, Bloodaxe, Britain's biggest independent publisher of poetry, brings out the seminal Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times. This literary landmark is a must-read, says the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, because it "goes to the heart of being human". Its contents will liberate and soothe precisely because, as R S Thomas noted, poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.

"Poetry is our best-kept secret," says the Bloodaxe editor, Neil Astley, who compiled the 500 contemporary works in Staying Alive. "Its biggest problem is that it's inadequately taught, and people just don't have enough access to it."

That may be changing. A surge in popular demand since 11 September, coupled with the great outpouring of poetic offerings in the aftermath of that event, has ensured that more verse is circulating in e-mail chains, and being posted on websites, than at any other time. As soon as Kabul fell, it was a new work by the blind poet Barakatullah Salim, about loneliness and longing, that Radio Afghanistan aired. Throughout the war, Afghan websites, even those run by and for Afghan women, highly rated ancient warrior verse. Just as in the Balkans, where writers had chosen poetry as the medium best able to express their responses to the turmoil, so in Kabul.

On both sides of the Atlantic, and within minutes of the collapse of the twin towers, W H Auden's "September 1 1939", the poet's eerie evocation of New York on the day Germany invaded Poland, was winding its way through the ether.

It's not major-league baseball, but whereas 30 years ago a good American poet might have expected to sell a thousand copies, nowadays it would be a healthy 70,000 and upwards. "Some of it is serious stuff, good, readable and accessible," the distinguished American poet Donald Hall told me from his home in New Hampshire. "The poet's public role tends to change in times of crisis. As in the Second World War, so there was a desire for poetry after 11 September. You could see it in the way the press was reaching out to poets. The very next day, the New York Times was on the phone to me."

Since Europe's first great work of literature, The Iliad - in which death is aestheticised and wounds are described as "poppies" - it has been the artist's job not to flinch from images that stimulate revulsion. "Unless you come to terms with dark subjects, there is no measure of life at all," Harrison says. Like Harrison, Hall believes that a poem should be anything but polite. There should be no tinkering with terror. Indeed, in times of conflict, when language so often falls prey to chaos and propaganda, it should say the unsayable. The reader, like the writer, should look into the Gorgon's gaze and confront the horror squarely.

This has become ever more important in a world that is increasingly stage-managed. "Bad poetry is about looking on the bright side, of which we get quite enough from Bush," says Hall, who requires at least a year to complete a poem. Since 11 September, he has found that terrorism has insidiously "entered" his work, even when he has been writing about love or landscape. "Wilfred Owen showed that poetry should face horror directly, terror was not there to be belittled," he explains. "The very act of facing it, of embodying it in the form of language, gave it a shape that was communicable to others and made the terror controllable."

It is worth noting that, instead of listening to spin-doctors, US marines aboard the USS Peleliu, as they steamed towards the Arabian Sea last November, found comfort in the Great War poets. Ironically, Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", perhaps the most famous anti-war poem of all time, was a particular favourite. As they prepared for battle, a tutor of the soldiers, Captain Chris Picado, made sure that they learnt the poem line by line. Owen had managed to crystallise the moment, say things just as they were, in all their unspeakable cruelty, unlike the politically correct modern military, which had done a marvellous job of sanitising war.

Could prose ever be as friendly to war? "No," is the defiant response of Vernon Scannell, the British poet who served in the Second World War, ". . . there are the conditions on the front line which are not very propitious to write prose . . . we have seen again and again that it is conflict, both spiritual and physical, that stretches the poetic sinews and is often necessary for great verse."

In times of trouble, it seems, we can always count on the redemptive power of poetry to come through.

Helena Smith's NS articles were shortlisted for the 2000 George Orwell prize

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?