World Poetry Day is celebrated on 21 March every year. It was founded by UNESCO in 1999, to promote poetry as a way to support linguistic diversity, and communication across borders.  

Practiced throughout history – in every culture and on every continent – poetry speaks to our common humanity and our shared values, transforming the simplest of poems into a powerful catalyst for dialogue and peace (UNESCO website). 

I feel very lucky to be discovering so many poems which communicate across the borders of rigid and controlling ideas about gender, demonstrating empathy, the complexity of human experiences, and possibilities for dialogue. I began my research in October 2023. It focuses on how contemporary poetry depicts and challenges notions of toxic masculinity.  

One area of reading is current definitions of toxic masculinity, including the limitations of the term. Fundamental to my thesis are definitions which focus on the implication of ‘toxic’ masculinity as ways of ‘doing gender’ which are damaging to the health of anyone of any gender, including men. I was interested to discover definitions which examine ‘toxic’ as implying danger and contamination of the natural world, leading me to read about ecofeminism and links between oppressive gender practices and oppression within the natural world. 

I am also reading widely in contemporary poetry, searching out collections which touch on gender or trauma, and which connect with definitions of toxic masculinities. I am repeatedly returning to the books which sparked the idea for my thesis. The first of these was American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes. While it is about race and politics at a particular moment in US history, it also explores and subverts contemporary masculinities.  The book explores what full, alive sex and connection might look like, violence in daily life and in politics, and the effects of living as a vulnerable body under constant threat. The poems are moving and serious, but also playful and funny, and this play with form, and language, serves to destabilise and undermine rigidity and control, and any fixed idea of the gender binary. I especially like the lonely-hearts ad poems. 

One of the experiences which led me into this research was working for many years as a humanistic therapist. I worked in sexual violence services, and also in a hospice and a diabetes service, often working with men who were struggling to manage gendered expectations of themselves, while living with long-term medical conditions.  

An important question in my thesis is how do we represent connections and identities across or within genders which allow complexity, confusion and depth – rather than easy binaries of good or bad, vulnerable or strong, clean or dirty? In this I am helped by considering ideas from narrative therapy – where we try to move from ‘thin’ accounts of people’s lives – which follow well-worn, limiting paths, often defined by oppression and outside influence, towards ‘thickened’ narratives, which pay attention to all the exceptions to rules, to what give a sense of agency, to the person’s own preferred choices of identity and meaning, and which recognise powerful oppressions at play, rather than locating difficulty within the individual. 

In my view poetry is a particularly rich medium for this. Poetry bends language in order to express those experiences which resist definition. It takes us into new territory, crossing borders which are often closed. It can represent multiple points of view. 

I would like to finish with a poem for World Poetry Day. It isn’t a poem directly connected to my research, but more one to resonate with the time of year, and to offer a simple affirmation of life during difficult times. 


By Caroline Stancer 

Hell yeah!     My mouth is open 

to eat     all the eddies in the air     I am hungry 

and loud 

Yellow!     Yellow!     I shout 

along with the cacophony of life    like when you do the breaststroke 

in the sea     and sink into each scooping dip 

a world of water     hits your chest 

when the next wave rises     it covers your head 

and your face is all salt     all salt     everywhere.       

Do you think it’s easy being this gorgeous? 

Being stretched to     the endless limits of yellow 

paper thin and barely here     I am almost all water 

and yet look how generous I am 

with all I haven’t got 

Do you remember     when you gave birth  

and you felt blown open     wide enough to let the world in? 

I live like that      wide as an estuary  

at high tide 

Look at me     look at me 

I am a herald     for the Earth’s orbit 

and for Yes 

one impossible moment     in an ordinary grass verge 

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1 comment on “World Poetry Day: Poetry Communicating Across Gender Boundaries 

  • 22nd March 2024 at 10:00 am
    Vic Blake

    Caroline. A great blog covering two of my writing passions: poetry and masculinity. Would love to discuss further. Vic


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