Poetry and the real world

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, whose marvellous collection of essays The Redress of Poetry I like to re-read, writes that W H 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 “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 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.

Here are two poems which give me that intense shock of recognition whenever I make a good discovery in poetry.

The first is a poem by Clive James who is dying of inoperable cancer. He contemplates the beauty of this earth and how he is part of it.

Star System

The stars in their magnificent array

Look down upon the Earth, their cynosure,

Or so it seems. They are too far away,

In fact, to see a thing; hence they look pure

To us, They lack the textures of our globe,

So only we, from cameras carried high,

Enjoy the beauty of the swirling robe

That wraps us up, the interplay of sky

And cloud, as if a Wedgwood plate of blue

And white should melt, and then, its surface stirred

With spoons, a treasure too good to be true,

Be placed, and hover like a hummingbird,

Drawing all eyes, though ours alone, so feast

On splendor as it turns west from the East.

There was a time when some of our young men

Walked plumply on the moon and saw Earth rise,

As stunning as the sun. The years since then

Have aged them. Now and then somebody dies.

It’s like a clock, for those of us who saw

The Saturn rockets going up as if

Mankind had energy to burn. The law

Is different for one man. Time is a cliff

You come to in the dark. Though you might fall

As easily as on a feather bed,

It is a sad farewell. You loved it all.

You dream that you might keep it in your head.

But memories, where can you take them to?

Take one last look at them. They end with you.

And still the Earth revolves, and still the blaze

Of stars maintains a show of vigilance.

It should, for long ago, in olden days,

We came from there. By luck, by fate, by chance,

All of the elements that form the world

Were sent by cataclysms deep in space,

And from their combination life unfurled

And stood up straight, and wore a human face.

I still can’t pass a mirror. Like a boy,

I check my looks, and now I see the shell

Of what I was. So why, then, this strange joy?

Perhaps an old man dying would do well

To smile as he rejoins the cosmic dust

Life comes from, for resign himself he must.

The second poem I read, by coincidence, just after looking with tense and bitter sadness at yet another video of hollow-eyed Syrian women holding their terrified children close after a bombing raid. It is by Alice Harrison.

Women Running

So they have always run

in legend, literature and life,

to city walls, to silent pit heads,

alone or in groups.

Today television freezes

the image. Snatched coats.

Awkward gait. A pushchair

outdistances terror.

They run with panic’s momentum.

Feel the stitch in the side,

the rasp in the breath,

the catch in the throat,

the heart in the mouth.

No comfort. None.



More than once I have quoted what the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: history, he wrote, is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” The latest crimes are as bad as ever.

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