Poetry with a Cause: Writing a Poetry Manifesto

As long as there have been poets, there have been poetry manifestos. Through the ages many poets have had an idea of what they think poetry should look, sound or feel like, and have felt compelled to explain it to others. Of course it’s also possible that the lonesome time spent developing a poetic voice and techniques drives poets to try and explain themselves to others, even if nobody’s asked.

The Futurist manifesto, written in 1909 by Filippo Marinetti states that: ‘The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.’ The idea of a shared aesthetic future, something modern and kicks against the artistic establishment, drives many efforts of poetry to create a ‘movement’ under a particular banner or set of aesthetic guidelines. What do you want the future of poetry to be, your manifesto gives you the chance to lay out your vision and find like-minded collaborators.

That word ‘manifesto’ though – there is something decidedly political about it too. Toni Morrison said that ‘all good art is political,’ and whether it overtly responds to politics or not, you could argue that the material circumstances that allow a person to write poetry, edit it at leisure and find publication are a reflection of their social situation. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write poetry in a warzone, just that the both the poet and the poetry are in a much more precarious situation and that voice may be cut off by violence or censorship at any time, or may be so oppressed that it is never heard at all. All the more reason to write, if you can. Choman Hardi’s poetry manifesto, written for Poetry Review, powerfully talks about the importance of bearing witness to those denied their voices.

You can write a manifesto for a book, or for a single poem, or a whole philosophy of writing. I’d start by listing the things that are really important to you in life – the events of your life that have been important, the things that have shaped who you are, the values that you hold most dear.  

Follow this up by having a look at your poems and thinking about what seems to be important to you as a writer. Think about how you wrote them: did you choose a form first, or did you follow the sound of the poem? Is the visual appearance of the words on the page your first concern? Think about your subject matter: Do you mainly write poems that re-examine past events, or do you write about the future? Do you focus on visual art in your poetry? Do you have particular themes that stand out?

Compare the two documents and see how the two cross over. How much do your poems reflect the things that are important to you as a person? How much do your ideas and beliefs connect with your voice? Do you think there’s a gap between them – and can you close it?

Below are a few choice questions to prompt some writing that just might be perfectly suited to a poetry manifesto! Enjoy – and let me know how you get on.

What does a poem stand for? What is a poem? What is a poem for? What should a poem be? What should it feel like? What should a poem do? How should it do that? How does a poem relate to the world? Why do you want to write it? What is writing like? Is poetry political? Is all poetry political? How can poetry change the world? How will your poetry change poetry?

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