There's no reason to fear the rhymes

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DO you think that poetry belongs to the past, and is therefore lovely but irrelevant? Or if it's modern, do you think of it as difficult (and possibly ugly) like most modern art, and again irrelevant?

Was it something you had to learn in school, and never willingly read again? Is it a high art for a minority audience, mostly in universities, or a popular art for reciting out loud, soothing or entertaining? Any way you look at it, it mightn't seem to relate to contemporary Scottish life.

When Scots were asked to name the most significant Scot of the millennium, the favourite turned out to be Robert Burns. I'm glad that there's a poet at the heart of Scotland's sense of achievement, and an incontestably great poet at that. Yet it's as though Burns were sealed off in his greatness, instead of being afloat on the broad river that is Scottish poetry, a river still in spate.

Poetry should not be seen as a tributary of the heritage industry, although it has its historians, bringing back dead and disregarded voices to enrich the present and change our view: Tom Leonard in Radical Renfrew, for example, and Cathleen Kerrigan in An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets.

Many people who voted for Burns might be hard put to produce the name of a living poet. The roll-call of the 20th-century dead white male poets is a daunting one: Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith . . . but it doesn't represent the end of the line. We should celebrate the poets amongst us now.

Sorley MacLean blew the Gaelic doors wide open, making room for native (Aonghas MacNeacail, Rody Gorman) and non-native speakers (Meg Bateman, Christopher Whyte) alike to continue his work of reinvigoration. The beloved couthy poems we are so often asked for at the Scottish Poetry Library - Cuddle Doon, The Boy in the Train - similarly, are not the last words in Scots: Matthew Fitt and Sheena Blackhall come to mind as writers who use the language to moving as well as comic effect. This is a rich period for poetry by Scots: Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and John Burnside represent a brilliant new generation.

Poetry shouldn't be the preserve of the classroom. Like other subjects, it can be crushed or enlivened by a teacher, and teachers often approach poetry hesitantly, themselves unconvinced that a joy in words and the play of imagination will carry them through poetry's perceived difficulties. Yet just as in music you can start with a simple exercise, and move on to more complicated pieces, so in poetry. Begin with a haiku - three lines - and reach for a sonnet. A taste for the Beatles doesn't stop appreciation of Beethoven: everyone responds to rhythm, and good poetry has rhythm, may have rhyme, can be as memorable as a song. Why be afraid of a little difficulty, when the rewards are immense?

There are moments in our lives when we don't feel able to express the profundity of our emotions, weddings and funerals being obvious examples. We look to the poets to say what we can't articulate - and they do. People are always asking us at the Scottish Poetry Library for poems for these occasions, and we can send them away with Scottish ones that are so much more eloquent than the greetings-card verse many people fall back on - even at a state funeral, the music may be sublime while the poetry is doggerel.

We've now produced three beautiful volumes: Handsel: Scottish poems for welcoming and naming babies; Handfast: Scottish poems for weddings and affirmations; Lament: Scottish poems for funerals and consolations. We know that the wedding anthology has been used for a ceremony on an Australian beach and one in a garden on Skye - no doubt in churches, and possibly in even further-flung places. Poetry reaches those parts other words don't reach.

One way National Poetry Day in Scotland is celebrated is with postcards now issued by the Scottish Poetry Library, to be found on trains and in supermarkets, arts venues and cafes, as well as in schools and libraries. This year the theme is "the future" and the subjects range from girls leaving school to women looking ahead to their 40th birthdays; Scotch astrology to child clones (who hasn't wanted someone else to do their homework while they get on with playing?); knitting and the parliament (not in the same poem!).

This is the poetry that is close to our everyday lives: perhaps not poetry that makes you feel as if the top of your head were taken off (one test of true poetry, according to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry has that effect), nevertheless, it alters our angle on experience. And that's what we need, most of us, a little jolt to set our spirits free. One poem can do that for you.

• Dr Robyn Marsack is director of the Scottish Poetry Library. Log on to for more information