Poetry is back, baby! Europe's poetry scene is thriving - but it never left in the first place

Poetry in Europe is thriving, with more international collaboration and a vibrant festival scene that appeals to younger crowds.
Poetry in Europe is thriving, with more international collaboration and a vibrant festival scene that appeals to younger crowds. Copyright Canva
By Anca Ulea
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With more events and cross-border collaboration, the European poetry scene is entering an exciting new chapter. Euronews Culture take a look at some of the subjects, themes and technology influencing poets in Europe.

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Every so often, the poetry community is solicited by eager journalists who want to know whether poetry as an art form is making a comeback.

But if you ask Steven J Fowler, an English poet and founder of the European Poetry Festival in the UK, the question is moot.

“There's an article written every six months by a journalist saying poetry is coming back,” Fowler tells Euronews Culture. “But there's no context about where it went.”

For Fowler, poetry is an endless recurrence, making its way up and down and back again. But he will allow that European poetry is currently experiencing an extraordinary moment.

“It feels like there’s a real moment of interesting work in Europe at the moment,” he says. “I think something has happened that people don’t talk about a lot, which is you can read almost all the poems ever online and you can travel, and most people have a lingua franca in English.”

“Those three changes and many others have created a generation or two generations of outgoing, dynamic, interesting and original poets.”

The European poetry scene may not be “back” from anywhere, but it’s most certainly thriving, with more young people getting involved and more events and cross-border collaborations that are enriching poets’ styles and formats.

English poet Steven J Fowler performing at the European Poetry Festival.
English poet Steven J Fowler performing at the European Poetry Festival.Courtesy: Steven J Fowler

A vibrant festival scene

Europe is filled with poetry festivals that facilitate exchanges between international poets and introduce newcomers to the scene.

“I feel like being part of a big family when I travel and when I attend festivals,” says French poet Samantha Barendson, who is part of the Versopolis platform linking upcoming poets from around the world through a network of around 30 festivals.

“It's a unique chance to see, what are the other voices, what are the writing methods or the writing rhythms or the writing themes in other countries.”

French poet Samantha Barendson performing at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam.
French poet Samantha Barendson performing at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam.Credit: Poetry International

Many international festivals take place in June, including the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, the Poesiefestival in Berlin and the European Poetry Festival organised by Fowler in London.

In August, the renowned Struga Poetry Evenings – which dates back all the way to 1961 – takes place in North Macedonia.

Spring is also a massive time for poetry events in Europe, like the nationwide Printemps des Poètes in France, which begins on 9 March; the Poetry Society’s Free Verse Poetry Book and Magazine Fair takes place in London on 20 April orLithuania’s Poetry Spring, which runs from 12-26 May.

Many of Europe’s poetry festivals and events are financially supported by the European Union’s Creative Europe fund, which supports projects with a European angle that share cultural content across borders.

Performances at the European Poetry Festival are often unconventional, as British poets collaborate with European counterparts.
Performances at the European Poetry Festival are often unconventional, as British poets collaborate with European counterparts.Courtesy: European Poetry Festival / Steven J Fowler

And contrary to what many outsiders may think, the vibe at these poetry festivals is often far from pretentious – Fowler says it’s actually very approachable.

“If someone comes to my event, what they’ll find is that everyone’s really nice and down to earth and the work is really strange,” Fowler says. “That’s the European tradition to me – it’s about being hospitable and open, learning, growing, bringing unity to difficult war-strewn places and doing it in a way which is as challenging as life.”

The European Poetry Festival pairs a British poet with a European poet and allows them to collaborate on new material, which they later present at the festival. The free-form event results in some very unconventional pieces.

“Sometimes people read, sometimes one language or both. Sometimes they do really crazy performances. So the events are quite exciting and dynamic in that way,” Fowler says.

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Technology is shaping a new world of poetry

For the director of The Poetry Society, the UK’s main poetry organisation, technology has profoundly impacted the way poets communicate, opening up a whole new world of collaboration and styles.

“Poets have always been interested in collaborating internationally, it's just that technology makes it easier,” Judith Palmer tells Euronews Culture.

“There are lots of online poetry readings all the time that reach a world audience. So I think the ability to be part of a programme of readers from across the world is what’s really changed over the last few years,” she continues.

Instagram and TikTok have also had a major impact, spawning new forms of “micropoetry” that have become popular with younger people.

ChatGPT is really an awful poet.
Samantha Barendson
French Poet

“The fact that poetry is available on social media makes it easier to reach younger people,” says Lithuanian poet Dainius Gintalas, who admits it’s not his preferred way of communicating his work.

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“I suspect that for many, it’s easier to listen and to watch than it is to read, especially when it comes to a concentrated text like a poem. In Lithuania, poetry was popularised by slam poetry nights 20 years ago. Social media, of course, also contributes to the democratisation and dissemination of poetry.”

A Poetry Open Mic in Lithuania.
A Poetry Open Mic in Lithuania.Courtesy: Samantha Barendson

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has also made its way into poetic circles, as a topic to write about and also a tool to experiment with. But AI probably won’t be replacing poets anytime soon, says Barendson.

ChatGPT is really an awful poet, it's really catastrophic,” she laughs.

“A lot of people would think that poetry is one thing that AI is never going to be able to do because it's never really going to have that personal experience or be able to bring the unexpected together in a way that's going to touch people,” Palmer adds.

But Palmer points out that the AI Chatbot could prove useful for upcoming poets who want to get a foothold in the industry.

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“We’ve found with young writers that they use ChatGPT to find out about opportunities,” she says. “They were writing into ChatGPT: Where do I find poetry competitions?”

Poetry in translation and a mixing of languages

Translations are often an avenue for poets to connect across different European countries.

“Many of our (Lithuanian) poets are also translators,” Gintalas says. “It’s also very popular in Lithuania to organise workshops for poetry translation, where poets and translators from two different countries come together, and the poets - with the help of translators - translate each others’ work.”

Gintalas says some of the most memorable of these translation workshops took place in Ukraine before the Russian invasion.

Barendson says that thanks to technology, she’s been able to translate poems from languages she doesn’t even understand – like German or Hebrew.

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French poet Samantha Barendson performing at Littfest in Sweden.
French poet Samantha Barendson performing at Littfest in Sweden.Henke Olofsson for Littfest

“With tools like Google Translate, it’s possible to understand the words and then rewrite them in a poetic way,” she says. “When you know the rhythm and the voice of the poet, it’s really easy to make a translation which is exactly as it sounds in the original language.”

Being exposed to poetry in other languages can also influence a poet’s own style and rhythm, Barendson adds.

“The first time I heard this music that comes with poetry in Hebrew, it made me create a new sound in my mind. I became inspired by that rhythm and started to write my own poem thanks to that.”

The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition, which accepts international entries, has often awarded prizes to poets writing in their second language, Palmer says.

“We get entries from some 120 different countries and not just Anglophone countries,” she says. “We’ve had poets who won that competition who were writing in second languages. It still amazes me that somebody who’s not a mother tongue speaker can still write amazing poetry. They’re seeing the language afresh, in a slightly different way and just writing really inventively.”

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Poetry festivals are opportunities for poets from different countries to meet each other and collaborate.
Poetry festivals are opportunities for poets from different countries to meet each other and collaborate.European Poetry Festival / Steven J Fowler

A medium that’s more relevant than ever

The topics that are being addressed in modern European poetry are as varied as the issues facing society today – from a resurgence of nature poetry rebranded as eco-poetry, which focuses on the climate crisis, to poems tackling questions of identity and sexuality.

“From what I’ve seen from young people, they’re not writing funny and sweet poetry,” Barendson says. “They’re not writing from imagination and fantasy, they’re writing from their own fears and problems and troubles.”

Poetry has found new audiences in young people, who are encouraged by government-funded programmes like the Printemps des Poètes in France and the Young Poets Network in the UK.

“Every year we get more entries to the Foyle Young Poets Award, which has been going for 25 years,” Palmer says. “Tickets for our Young Poets Takeover, where we invite young writers aged under 25, sell out the minute we put them online.”

But poetry also speaks to a freedom that doesn’t exist in other forms of writing or expression, which especially appeals to younger people, Palmer says.

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“When we ask young people about why they're interested in poetry, a very common response is that it's a place where they can feel free,” Palmer says. “In a lot of their other school work, they feel like they have to just give the right answer. But in poetry, it gives them an opportunity to explore what they think.”

That’s the beauty and the purpose of poetry, according to Fowler. It’s a form of language that is used for something that isn’t mainly meant to communicate information.

“It's very loose and it's very open and that's what its value is,” he says. “It transforms the individual who discovers it, who reads it, who writes it by making them more sensitive to language, more understanding of the complexity of expression in language, more open to the complexity of life.”

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