Saturday, May 11, 2013
The Necessity of Poetry
I have been thinking about poetry recently, and how important it is. I post my own poems on this blog, and I do so without any apology whatsoever. I firmly believe that poetry should be a bigger part of everyday life. I believe that more people should read poetry, recite poetry, and write poetry. I don't think it has to be good poetry.
There are some people-- especially conservatives (or cultural conservatives, anyway)-- who wring their hands at such poetic populism. I'm thinking about critics like Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom and the Irish poet and polymath Anthony Cronin. The general thrust of these objections is that only great poetry is worth bothering about, that if we bother with anything else we are sapping our critical faculties, and probably contributing to the decline of Western Civilization as well.
I don't buy that for a second. Poetry for the people does not mean that Gemma Higgins, age twelve and a half, becomes the equal of W.B. Yeats or Robert Frost, or that her Poem for Pebbles my Pet Bunny is put on a par with Ode to a Nightingale. That's a ridiculous idea.
Rather, I agree whole-heartedly with the famous aphorism of G.K. Chesterton: "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." Nobody complains about amateurs tinkling on a piano, painting a watercolour, telling a joke, or making a casserole. Why should poetry be any different?
But I would go even further than that. I would say that the poetry of ordinary people has-- or, at least, can have-- a naive charm that is all its own, and that is even lacking from the sublimities of Tennyson and Keats and Philip Larkin.
Whatever the reason, I have recently found myself hungering for poetry, and just as pleased to read a certain sort of mediocre poetry as I am to read more competent work. (Of course, when I come across a really good poem, I'm pleased to discover it.)
I say "a certain sort of mediocrity" because there are some sins I find unforgiveable, whether it's in a pamphlet by the Ballymacmurphy Writer's Group or in the Collected Works of W.H. Auden or Louis MacNeice. I can't forgive wilful obscurity-- "the starry dynamo in the machinery of night", that kind of thing. Enigma, ambiguity, and elusiveness are all very well, but when an ordinary person has no chance of guessing what the heck the poet is talking about, then I honk the hokum horn.
Another unforgiveable sin is a reliance on choppy, truncated little lines. I mean this kind of thing:
lost in air
compass in dreams
I rush forward
to the uncomprehending
This seems like a form of conspicuous consumption to me; a flagrant waste of paper. How can you settle in to a poem like that? It has too much of the hairshirt about it for my taste.
Then there are those poems which seem to eschew any kind of commentary or reflection or explicit human emotion, that strive to be the poetic equivalent of a film camera left running. Stuff like this:
Daybreak in Cardiff.
Mist clings to the unpeopled streets.
A sun that strains to penetrate the clouds.
A seagull squeals, and circles.
A toppled bin outside the cinema etc. etc. etc.
Then there is the poetry that draws entirely on mythology or Renaissance history or literature or Peruvian village life. I just don't think poetry can really come alive unless it draws on the poet's own immediate experience-- especially his or her everyday experience, as opposed to that three month stint volunteering in Africa. I think poetry thrives on the familiar, and its best if it is a familiarity shared by poet and reader.
Last (but certainly not least), I hate and reject poetry that wallows in ennui and superciliousness. My father complains about angst in poetry. I can't really agree with him. I think angst is a perfectly good subject for a poet, and many of the best poets have almost confined themselves to angst. A.E. Housman is a good example. I find nothing at all wrong with a despairing ditty like this one:
The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Angst is only really the shadow of ardour. An angst-ridden person at least yearns for joy and fulfilment and life. But what can you do with those blasé, over-educated, irony-afflicted poets and writers who are apparently too anaemic and sophisticated to get worked up about anything? It is though they are looking at human life from a great distance, through glazed eyes. Any kind of spontaneous, hearty reaction to anything has long become impossible to them. They have read too many books, had too many lovers, thought their way through too many illusions, and all is vanity and vexation of spirit to them.
As always, it's hard to think of an example when you need one. But these lines by E.E. Cummings perhaps show what I mean (though I acknowledge that Cummings is being satirical here):
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
This sort of malady is not confined to prize-winning poets who appear in prestigious magazines. It is a temptation to any fairly clever and well-educated person who puts poetic pen to paper.
So, putting it all together, this is what I look for in a poem. A poem where I know what the poet is talking about, and where the lines cover a decent stretch of the page's width, and that draws on familiar subject-matter, and that is not buried under layers of irony and apathy. After that, I don't really care how bad it is-- within reason. I mean, I find myself unable to relish a verse like this, which is the kind of thing I sometimes come across when I am skimming poetry volumes:
Once a month the fair comes to town
And every girls goes in her brand new gown.
The farmers arrive to sell their crops
And the little kids suck their lollipops
If the author of this (fictional) verse were to read me his poems, I would listen respectfully and think of something nice to say about them. But I'm afraid I would be unable to enjoy them, no matter how many allowances I made. Still, even in this case, I think it is better for him to write poetry than not to write poetry.
I think every moment devoted to poetry is a little victory for the human race. Actually, it's quite a big victory. Poetry rarely finds time and space amongst the more imposing business of life: brainstorming, TV watching, gift-shop visiting, car washing, cooking, cleaning, partying, dinner partying, exercising, eating out, working, working, working, working. There is always something more pressing, something more profitable, something more practical to be doing.
But I think poetry is necessary because it reminds us we are alive. It reminds us that we are humans, that we are spectators of and participants in the primal wonder of existence. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer, or a commuter, or a voter, or a citizen, or a viewer. But we desperately need to be reminded that we are more, infinitely more, than the aggregate of those roles we play.
The wonderful thing about poetry is that its subject matter is everything. It has no agenda, no terms of reference, no brief. The Trojan War can share equal billing with the day, aged four years old, when the poet watched the dust motes dancing in her uncle's loft. Doubts and hesitations and confusions are as welcome as convictions, passions and insights. The King James Bible and a sun holiday brochure can both be source texts. Writing and reading poetry should be like that moment when we finally get out of the airplane seat and gratefully revel in the rediscovered gift of space; space to stretch in, space to move through, space to think in. Except the space we are stretching our limbs in, when it comes to poetry, is all time and space and possibility and imagination.
There is a moment from Star Trek: the Next Generation (yes, I'm a Trekkie) which always sticks in my mind. It is a scene in which Geordi La Forge and Data (the android who wants to be more human) are discussing a poem that Data has written about his pet cat. (One of the things I love about the series is all the laudable, self-improving extra-curricular activities that the crew take part in, such as amateur dramatics and trombone recitals and, indeed, poetry readings. In the supposedly more adult and sophisticated Deep Space Nine, the characters tend to prefer holographic sex as a recreation. You decide which is better.) The fact that a scene like that could occur in a science fiction show struck me as almost a little miracle, and also, a delight.
I remember, too, the time I came across a book in school in which teenagers picked their favourite poems and wrote commentaries upon them. I was amazed. Here were kids talking about their own personal reactions to poems, and they were printed in a book. It just didn't fit into my perceptions of what the world treated as important. One of the kids (a girl!) said that she wrote out her favourite poem on fancy paper, drew a decorative border on it, and put it on her wall. I was flabbergasted.
I think poetry is important because I am a humanist. (Incidentally, how on earth did the word "humanist" come to be equated with "atheist"? I don't see how you can be a humanist without believing in God. I don't know how you can believe that every human being is of infinite value if you believe that man is a cosmic freak, and ultimately no more than the sum of his parts; if you believe that mankind was not intended, but simply a by-product of mindless physical processes.)
I think poetry is important because it reminds us that we have souls.
As a Christian, I think poetry is important because it has God's approval; he gave us the Psalms, along with the other poetic works of the Bible.
I wish poetry was more of a part of everyday life. I wish business meetings opened with a short poem. I wish there were poems at hen parties and bachelor parties (though there may be, for all I know). I wish party political broadcasts included heartfelt sonnets. I wish supermarkets were opened with a ceremonial poem, to be inscribed on a brass plaque at the main entrance. I wish there was poetry (as opposed to jingles) in advertisements. And I'm grateful for the everyday situations where you do find poetry, such as greeting cards and in memoriam ads and school exercises.
I think poetry is important because poetry is so easy to sneer at, so frequently sneered at. All the best things in life are easily sneered at; youthful idealism, starry-eyed romance, eccentricity, wholesomeness, sentimentality. The words "I'd like to read a poem that I wrote" is generally accepted as a signal to duck for cover. I submit that this is a mistake. I think that, if we can find time for car shows and reality TV and murder mysteries, we might spare thirty seconds to listen respectfuly to a fellow human being opening the landscape of their soul to us.