Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Poetry and Humanity

The title of this blog post is as pompous as it gets. Its theme is very simple, though. Here it is: I believe that one of the great virtues of poetry is that it helps preserve our humanity. By "poetry", I mean reading poetry, reciting poetry, and (especially) writing poetry. I've written on this topic before, but I feel drawn to it again.

Of course, we are human from the moment of conception to the moment of our death. Even after we die, our bodies are called "human remains". So you could say that the phrase "preserves our humanity" doesn't actually mean anything, that we can't help being human anyway.

But surely only a very tiresome person would pretend not to understand the phrase. Humanity isn't just a species, it's a quality. It's impossible to describe, but we all know what it means. We understand expressions such as: "I want to feel like a human and not a machine", "That bank treats its customers in a very human way", "She has written and recorded a very human album", "I'm only human", etc. etc.

The nature of humanity has been a favourite theme for poets and writers through the ages. One of the most famous meditations is from Alexander Pope:

Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great...

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Hamlet's words are no less famous: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

There are many, many other examples. Again and again, when writers reflect upon the human condition in its broadest sense, they tend to focus upon one particular feature : that man, although a limited and fallible being, has effectively infinite potential. As a priest of my acquaintance likes to say, man is a "self-transcender".

I think few (if any) human activities reflect man's infinite potential so well as poetry.

Why poetry? Well, to be blunt, you don't need any talent to write poetry. Of course, you need talent to write great poetry. But anyone can write a poem.

Poetry is as flexible in its subject matter as it is in its form. Nothing is off limits. Time, space, and possibility are no boundaries. It's a form in which the fullness of our humanity-- emotional, imaginative, spiritual, and so on-- can be expressed without any hindrance.

I love great poetry. Great poetry is one of the things that has meant most to me in my life, especially in my teens and twenties. In more recent years, however, I've developed an interest in poetry from a different point of view: not necessarily as a fine art, but as a form of self-expression.

Why should anyone hesitate to write poetry? Or to read their poetry to others? Why is this so taboo?

Society has always been complex, and perhaps modern society is particularly complex. We can't avoid compartmentalizing our humanity-- and the humanity of others. In a single day, we fill many roles: driver, passenger, pedestrian, parent, customer, employee, manager, patient, spectator, applicant, and so on through an endless list of other roles.

This is inevitable, in my view, but it does rather diminish our humanity. Even if you love the ordinary and the mundane, as I do, there are depths in every human being which cannot be fully expressed in a supermarket queue or a trip to the dentist. We are being squeezed all the time.

I wish poetry played a bigger part in everyday life. I often fantasize about this.

Sometimes I imagine a scenario in which a newly-published collection of poetry is the first item on the evening news. In this scenario, there is a studio discussion of the themes and imagery among a panel of literary critics and general "pundits". Over video-link up, somebody gives his theories on the poet's creative influences. Why should such an idea be so unimaginable, almost comical?

Or imagine if friends in a pub or café simply read their poems to each other, that this was considered natural and normal. Can you imagine if you were meeting a friend and you casually remarked: "I've written a poem and I'd like to read it to you"?

Or can you imagine if workplaces had poetry days, where the employees took the day off to participate in a poetry workshop, to compose poetry, read it, and discuss it? Does this thought make you cringe? Why should it?

I love hearing about people writing poetry. I love hearing about people reciting poetry. I love hearing about people framing poetry and putting it on their bedroom walls and making it a part of their daily lives. Every time I hear about something like that, it seems to me like a little triumph.

I think the world needs more poetry, to remind us of our humanity, and the humanity of other people.


  1. "Poetry is as flexible in its subject matter as it is in its form. Nothing is off limits. Time, space, and possibility are no boundaries." This is a wonder! I would like to sit down and give it a go tomorrow! As you already know my very few efforts in this (no real effort) is an extremely meagre output, but I still like the idea you put in here of poetry as a thing for every one who likes it.

    Hope you can appreciate another country song also. This is one of my most long standing favorites, and in great part because of the lyrics. Can´t say if it really is poetry, it´s only how I think of it. (The video is part of a series if you would ask seeing the intro)

  2. Thanks for that, Thomae. Those lyrics are quite nice, sweet and warm, although I can't say any of them really grabbed me. I don't see why they shouldn't be called poetry. I'm glad I've excited you to write poetry.

  3. Tuesday
    I couldn't easily find a All Irish Saints poem for the feast. I did find one for the Saints of Wales, translated by D.Lloyd. from Gwenallt, who seems to have written in Welsh.
    The posts about this have disappeared-is it just my phone or something else?

    1. No, I deleted them. I will restore them eventually.

      Welsh wouldn't be much use to me-- but good try!!

    2. I tweeted my Poetry Tuesday poem today-- "And Then No More" by James Clarence Mangan. Rather, a link to it.