Today is World Poetry Day and yesterday was World Story-telling Day. Each year, March 21 is designated as a special day for poetry across the world. It is observed in several countries, and will once again be marked in Guyana at an event of international poetry at the Umana Yana on Tuesday March 23. Although much less known and much less celebrated, a similar day is observed annually on March 20 for storytelling.
Celebrating, promoting and honouring poetry and the art of storytelling in this way is taken seriously in the world community even if not by the world population, and there is a National Poetry Day commemorated in several countries on different dates through the year, depending on the particular country. However, in 1999 UNESCO declared March 21 as International Poetry Day, and this has been observed since 2000. The difference between the two was outlined at a meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York in 2001. On National Poetry Day each nation celebrates its own poetry and honours its own poets, but on International Poetry Day each country ensures that the poetry of other nations is read and the focus is on the poetry of all the nations of the world.
Guyana will observe this at its 2010 evening of world poetry when the international community in Georgetown will join Guyanese in reading the poetry of different nations in the Umana Yana on Tuesday March 23 at 5pm. The occasion is organised and hosted by the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport. This will be a resuscitation of similar events held locally years ago. While this week’s event is in keeping with the UNESCO declaration, the previous readings of international poetry were done according to the then known observance of World Poetry Day on October 15.
During the 1990s Guyana joined those countries where the annual day was marked when persons at the University of Guyana staged an evening of readings of their work by four invited Guyanese writers at the Theatre Guild. This was followed by annual events held at the Guild on October 15, at which a widely expanded range of local poets were given the opportunity to read their work on this programme. The members from the university then decided to go truly international and members of the diplomatic community in Guyana were invited to read selections of the poems of their nations. Diplomats from several countries as well as the representatives of other international agencies presented their national poetry at those World Poetry Day performances, which were shifted to the stage of the National Cultural Centre.
The next phase of these observances was a shift in the hosting of the annual event. It was taken over by the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists and also saw further shifts in the venues. The Poetry Day readings were held on the UG campus and then moved to the Umana Yana. Then AGWA joined forces with the Ministry of Culture to continue the presentations of international and Guyanese poems. However, the regularity of the presentations wobbled; they ceased to be annual and became sporadic. The mantle has now been taken up by the Department of Culture.
Surprisingly, the history and specific origins of World Poetry Day are rather sketchy in terms of known facts and documentation. It is clear that there was a UNESCO Declaration, and the following is documented.
“In November 1999, UNESCO designated World Poetry Day to be held on March 21 each year. The organization recognized the important role of poetry in the arts and in cultures throughout the world and over time. It also wanted the day to promote the efforts of small publishers with regard to publishing poetry. The day also focused on promoting a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, as well as strengthening the association between poetry and other forms of expression, such as dance, music, and painting. The first World Poetry Day was held on March 21, 2000.”
The UNESCO session declared that this observance was to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements.” The purpose of the day is “to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world.”
In March, 2001, a meeting was held at the United Nations in New York under the theme Dialogue Among Civilisations with sessions dedicated to this dialogue Through Poetry. This meeting involved interest groups including the Rattapalax publication of New York, the International Poetry Forum of Holland, the American Academy of Poets, and the Kenyon Review journal. It sought to further the cause of national poetry days and the international day of poetry, giving added support to the declaration and urging the United Nations to add its weight to the idea that the dialogue among the nations of the world can be served by poetry.
However, there remain gaps in information about how it really started, how and by whom it was observed. A Trinidadian source says it started in 1936 when Tessa Sweezy Webb began to honour poets of Ohio annually on the third Saturday of October. By 1951, the idea had been taken up by 41 countries around the world on October 15. Other sources give different dates for the annual observance, including October 5, but it seems that by the middle of the century there was a standard date of October 15.
According to Wikipedia, this date was chosen because it is Virgil’s birthday. Publius Vergilius Maro, known as ‘Virgil’ (Oct 15, 70 bc – Sept 21, 19 bc) who was Roman Poet Laureate in the reign of Augustus Caesar, is one of the greatest known classical poets, many of whose lines have found themselves in the English language today. For example, in Aeneid, the epic poet declares arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and the man), and this was even further immortalised because Bernard Shaw used it for the title of his famous play Arms and the Man. Other well repeated sayings from Virgil are “love conquers all” and “fortune favours the bold.” Other writers have paid him tribute. It was the ghost of Virgil who guided Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri on his journey through hell in the Inferno.
In the Caribbean, the Trinidadian poet Anson Gonzalez has been associated with promoting World Poetry Day. It is known that he organised a prominent presentation of poetry on October 15, 1979 at the Normandie Hotel in Port of Spain, and this was followed by other like events. These developments, as listed by the Trinidadian source, have included the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago and a CLICO competition for schools.
Verified facts about World Storytelling Day are even scarcer. It is celebrated each year on March 20, the first day of the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere. In the southern, it is on the Autumn equinox. According to the sources, the purpose is to promote and perpetuate “the oral art of storytelling” and each year it is organized around a theme agreed upon by storytellers around the world. For 2010 the theme is “light and shadow”; it was “neighbours” last year and in 2008 it was “dreams.”
It is said to have started in 1991 or 1992 in Sweden when there was a National Storytellers Day on March 20. Other events followed on that date, including a large international production in Newfoundland, Canada in 2007. There were continuous attempts to link with storytellers across the world in different languages. It is not known whether there was any connection, but just around the same time there was a similar idea in Barbados. In the 1990s an annual Storytelling Festival at the central bank auditorium in Bridgetown was led by Ken Corsbie and included Stanley Greaves (both Guyanese). The date, however, was the end of June going into early July and it was sustained for a number of years with performers from around the Caribbean and some from the USA.
These national days are strong in many countries, particularly Great Britain, where there are events in Ireland and England. The UK National Poetry Day is October 8, and on October 3, 2009, the Telegraph newspaper carried an interview by Lorna Bradsbury with poet Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy had just recently been appointed Poet Laureate of the UK (May, 2009) and had been commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day 2009. She came up with Atlas, a poem based on the classical myth of the giant hero Atlas who was tasked with bearing the world on his shoulders. It is a poem about the fragility of the earth, touching on the threats to the environment, and to life, because of present conditions. Atlas is described in his heroic task of saving it.
Give him strength, crouched on one knee in
with the Earth on his back,
balancing the seven seas,
the oceans, five, kneeling
in ruthless, empty, endless space
of whale, dolphin, sea-lion, shark, seal, fish,
which swarms the waters. Hero.
heavy to hold, the mountains;
burn of his neck and arms taking the strain –
Andes, Himalayas, Kilimanjaro –
give him strength, he heaves them high
to harvest rain from skies for streams
and rivers, he holds the rivers,
holds the Amazon, Ganges, Nile, hero, hero.
Hired by no-one, heard in a myth only,
he carries a planet’s weight,
islands and continents,
the billions there, his ears the last to hear
their language, music, gunfire, prayer;
give him strength, strong girth, for elephants,
tigers, snow leopards, polar bears, bees,
the last ounce of a humming-bird.
in infinite, bleak black,
he bears where Earth is, nowhere,
head bowed, a genuflection to the shouldered dead,
the unborn’s hero, he is love’s lift;
sometimes the moon rolled to his feet, a gift.
Carol Ann Duffy