What is poetry for? The answers were varied, but many embraced emotion: “to draw emotion and deepen insight”; “to enlighten in both senses of the word”; “to turn a rush of emotion into a form of music”; “to engage with emotional reality”; “to make language work as hard as possible”; “for singing out loud”; “to encourage social awakening”; “to delight so that it may inform”; “to illuminate the world”; “to clarify and express feeling”. People see poetry as the means of expressing powerful emotions, but often that will rein in the imagination, and produce a one-dimensional statement rather than a representation of the world in words.
One of the things poetry gives all of us is a way of developing an attentiveness to life, a way of observing the world, of noticing things and seeing them differently. A good poem looks closely at the world; does that Martian thing of trying to see it for the first time. Everything else – the emotional charge, the lyrical delight, the intellectual pleasure – is secondary.
“There are two ways to take the question ‘What is poetry for?’,” says Don Paterson, poetry editor as well as an award-winning poet. “You can ask it neutrally, in which case there’s a good answer. But you can also ask it as a challenge – what use is it? But you don’t need to answer that one. Poetry shouldn’t be on the defensive, because poetry doesn’t have a case to answer.”
It’s a combative beginning – Paterson is a sharp Scot who quickly latches on to my limited reading of contemporary poetry – and it seems sensible to concentrate on the neutral question. “If you burned every poem on the planet and you wiped every poem from every human mind, you would have poetry again by tomorrow afternoon,” he says. “It’s not something you do to language, so much as language does to itself under specific conditions – mainly shortness of time and emotional urgency. Any time that comes up, its grain and structure suddenly become apparent, all its music, rhythm and capacity for invention.”
Paterson says poetry only feels marginalised beyond the festival circuit because the mainstream media give it less prominence than novels and non-fiction, which is undeniable. When did you last see a poetry collection leading a review section? Perhaps Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters in 1998, and then only because of the book’s supra-poetic aspects. I tell Paterson that at Blackwells in Oxford, an otherwise wonderful bookshop, poetry is tucked away in a part of the store called “Poet’s corner”, a twee marginalisation all too typical of the way we treat poetry, because it is difficult and requires close reading.
He argues that its demanding nature should be one of poetry’s strengths – by reading well, readers can take possession of a poem. “If the poem’s any good they probably have to work at it,” he says, “but working at a poem is half-authorship. You’re making it your own. That’s the whole point of poetry. That’s the poetic contract. That’s what you’re trying to do – establish that weird, close relationship with the reader that I don’t think you can with any other verbal medium.” Perhaps the most dramatic development in poetry is the growing influence of performance. Traditionally, the poem on the page has been accorded more reverence than the poem on the stage, but that’s changing.
Can poetry change the world? Is that its purpose – to call its readers to arms? Carol Ann Duffy, who became poet laureate in 2009 and was proving an electrifying presence, seems to believe it can. Her response to her new public role has been very different from that of most of her predecessors, prompting poems not on happy royal occasions but on war, the expenses scandal, the banking crisis, climate change. She recently argued that poetry was “in the ascendant” among young people, and that as they rejected materialism they would channel their thoughts and ideas, especially on green issues, into poetry.
Source: The Guardian