What is poetry for?

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, whose marvellous collection of essays The Redress of Poetry I like to re-read, writes that WH Auden’s elegy for Yeats was “a rallying cry that celebrates poetry for being on the side of life, and continuity of effort, and enlargement of the spirit.” Heaney believes that one function of poetry is to act as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world;  he calls this “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.”

This is what he calls “redress,” whereby “the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions,” offering “a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effort upon the individual spirit… tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium… This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”

I believe that is finely put. But the overwhelming majority of people ask the question – in our hard, “real” world what is poetry’s relevance? In such tumultuous, oppressive times as these what is the point of poetry? For myself I am convinced about a good poem’s value as “a glimpsed alternative” to so much in the world that is a denial of enlightened humanity.

But at the end of the day what I get most out of good poetry is pleasure, pure enjoyment in what Coleridge called “the best words in the best order,” a feeling of intense contentment and lasting satisfaction that I have discovered a perfect expression in words of some fact about the world or feeling or thought which once I have experienced it there seems no other way it could have been written or said, an inevitable achievement of the human imagination to be savoured and remembered.

Over the years the great Polish writer and Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, has become a poet I keep by my side. She expresses such plain-spoken truth in her beautiful, matter-of-fact poetry. In this poem she measures what poetry means to her.

Some Like Poetry

Some –

thus not all. Not even the majority of all but the minority.

Not counting schools, where one has to,

and the poets themselves,

there might be two people per thousand.

Like –

but one also likes chicken soup with noodles,

one likes compliments and the color blue,

one likes an old scarf,

one likes having the upper hand,

one likes stroking a dog.

Poetry –

but what is poetry.

Many shaky answers

have been given to this question.

But I don’t know and don’t know and hold on to it

like to a sustaining railing.

Just recently I have discovered an American poet, Philip Levine, whose poetry for decades has investigated the gritty, hard-scrabble, industrial heartland of his country. I have grown to love his poems about the battlefields of the world. I give this example.

Among Children

I walk among the rows of bowed heads –

the children are sleeping through fourth grade

so as to be ready for what is ahead,

the monumental boredom of junior high

and the rush forward tearing their wings

loose and turning their eyes forever inward.

These are the children of Flint, their fathers

work at the spark plug factory or truck

bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs

to the widows of the suburbs. You can see

already how their backs have thickened,

how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,

leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like

to sit down among them and read slowly

from the Book of Job until the windows

pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea

of industrial scum, her gowns streaming

with light, her foolish words transformed

into song, I would like to arm each one

with a quiver of arrows so that they might

rush like wind there where no battle rages

shouting among the trumpets, Ha! Ha!

How dear the gift of laughter in the face

of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings

without coffee and oranges, the long lines

of mothers in old coats waiting silently

where the gates have closed. Ten years ago

I went among these same children, just born,

in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned

down to hear their breaths delivered that day,

burning with joy. There was such wonder

in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes

closed against autumn, in their damp heads

blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one

turned against me or the light, not one

said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,

not one complained or drifted alone,

unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.

Eleven years from now they will become

the men and women of Flint or Paradise,

the majors of a minor town, and I

will be gone into smoke or memory,

so I bow to them here and whisper

all I know, all I will never know.

I read about the Congolese writer Labou Tanusi. On the very edge of fury about what he saw happening in his country he wrote: “To be a poet nowadays is to want to ensure, with all one’s strength, with all one’s body and all one’s soul, that, in the face of guns, in the face of money (which in its turn becomes a gun), and above all in the face of received wisdom (upon which we poets have the authority to piss), no aspect of human reality is swept into the silence of history.”

I pray that in Guyana  a love of poetry and the part it should play in the life of our nation is remembered forever.


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