October 9, 2020

Why Bother with Poetry?


A few years ago, a student in Northern Ireland asked me how poetry was relevant to real life. I gave the example of a tweet that had been posted recently by the Republican leader Gerry Adams, which featured an image of an enormous yellow rubber duck alongside the words ‘Ducky ar lá’ – a reference to the Irish language slogan Tiocfaidh ar lá (‘Our day will come’).

Was this a pun? Tiocfaidh is often rendered ‘chucky’ in English, so Adams chose ‘ducky’ for its similar sound. Yet some might argue that, as the two words are not homophones (like ‘been’ and ‘bean’) the strict answer is no. The poetic technique used was rhyme; though more specifically, perfect masculine rhyme, which is as close to homophony as rhyme can get. In any case, the main purpose of using rhyme here was the same as that of using a pun: to elicit humour.

At the same time, Adams’ use of rhyme was an opportunity to remind the reader of the political phrase to which it refers, which imagines a time when Republicans have succeeded in their aim of uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.

This might have several effects: to keep the phrase and the idea behind it in widespread use, to provide an opportunity for Republicans to bond over shared in-group knowledge, and to suggest to others reading the tweet that Adams can be funny despite his advanced age (he was born in 1948) and so render him more sympathetic.

The tweet in question built on previous posts highlighting Adams’ fondness for rubber ducks, which some readers praised for being light-hearted and authentic. Others, however – particularly those who accuse him of having historically supported armed conflict in Northern Ireland – criticised them as inappropriate or even disingenuous.

So, I argued to my student, poetic techniques can be powerful. The rubber duck may be a small example, but many small examples can help to shape a narrative. Understanding how poetry works does not just help us to read poems, but to read the world. It gives us a greater appreciation for how people persuade others. And it can help us to persuade others ourselves.