{Fri 16 February 2007}   Poetry’s Potential
I am so excited to have found, via Very Like a Whale, this exquisitely expressed post called “Defining Difficulty in Poetry” by Reginald Shepherd.

I highly recommend this post, but I do wonder about the impact of declaring that “poetry is difficult”! That is what so many of its potential readers fear. Of course, this is due to a basic assumption that it ought not to be; that somehow poetry, uniquely among the art forms, should not use techniques, devices, materials and skills that require knowledge and mastery to achieve or comprehend its effects. Stephen Fry suggests in The Ode Less Travelled that most people believe that because words are a universal currency, art made from them should be instantly, universally accessible:

“Unlike musical notation, paint or clay, language is inside every one of us. For free. We are all proficient at it. We already have the palette, the paints and the instruments. We don’t have to go and buy any reserved materials. Poetry is made of the same stuff you are reading now, the same stuff you use to order pizza over the phone, the same stuff you yell at your parents and children, whisper in your lover’s ear and shove into an e-mail, text or birthday card. It is common to us all. Is that why we resent being told that there is a technique to its highest expression, poetry? I cannot ski, so I would like to be shown how to. I cannot paint, so I would value some lessons. But I can speak and write, so do not waste my time telling me that I need lessons in poetry, which is, after all, no more than emotional writing, with or without the odd rhyme. Isn’t it?”

Like Mr Fry, I say No! Poetry is so much more than that. Poetry can be narrative and is usually (but not exclusively) emotional, yes, but it also uses visual and musical forms, as well as semantic suggestions which, in the best poems, enhance their meaning. It paints pictures and caresses or startles the ear. It engages the intellect and the imagination as well as the emotions.

Besides language, the poet must have something of the visual artist, the musician and the philosopher in her. The poet-artist appreciates the form of words, sentences and lines, and the value of negative space, for shaping a thought. The poet-musician revels in the sounds of words and letters, composing melodies from them, and feels the pulse of speech, drawing it out to make its many possible rhythms audible and compelling. The poet-philosopher understands the force of rational argument and the epistemological limbo in which truth eternally seeks a home, the subjective impulse toward individuation and the objective need for civil cooperation, the power of verbal accuracy and the pleasurable mysteries of contextual ambiguity—the thought-tangents that may open whole new worlds or parallel universes.

Poems written by such poets are worthy of “payment” for one’s enjoyment of them. People quite readily pay hard-earned cash for art gallery entrance fees or concert tickets when artists they value are showing their work. Could they not be encouraged to spend a little time learning the tools of poetry appreciation, which costs very little financially for something very rewarding?

Perhaps, to invite such readers to engage with all of poetry’s potential, rather than fearing it, some alternative semantics might be in order. Rather than referring to it as “difficult”, could we choose words like “challenging, intricate, profound, complex, sophisticated, rich, essential (of or relating to essence), multi-layered, nourishing, fertile, verdant, intriguing, fascinating, mysterious, stimulating…”?

jen says:

Poetry has always been an outlet for me


Tia says:

Jen, it was interesting to see your site, but I am not sure how or whether your response above was related to my post, other than in dealing with poetry in general. I’d be interested to hear more from you about the question of “difficulty” in poetry and whether you think some readers may be persuaded to see the challenges as worthwhile.

Tia – you left out the word “accessible” from your long list. Poetry is accessible if one reads aloud to oneself, and plays with sounds, timing and interval and suspends judgement of notions that crop up in response to this activity. And in educating young ones in poetry or dance or the visual arts emphasizing the rich pleasure of doing and exploring the “language” of these arts might be emphasized. Too often the teaching of poetry is approached with a knit and perl dryness that squeezes any joy from initial aquaintanceship with this art form.

Tia says:

Hello suburbanlife, and thanks for your comment. I agree very much that poetry is accessible (although I’ve begun to develop an allergy to that particular word, for reasons described elsewhere on my site), and my usual approach in tutoring students was to do exactly as you suggest – getting them to read aloud, play with rhythm, free-associate, etc. before proceeding to any analysis. However, in the list above I was looking for words that might, even tangentially, be appropriate substitutes for “difficult”. I think that “accessible” in this context would be a stretch too far!

I find it hard to generalize what poetry “is” because there is such a wide range, e.g. between easily accessible and hermetic or even cryptic.

What I resent is when somebody comes along and says, “Poetry should be like this; anything else is not poetry.”

On the other hand, I do admit to some difficulties with poetry that cannot be fully understood without some rather eclectic specialist knowledge (T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is an example).

Tia says:

Hi James, and thanks for your comments. I’m not sure if you’ve read my posts “Poetry and specialised vocab” and “What is Poetry?” They address both topics that you raise above, and I’m interested in taking them further, so any more comments on these would be welcome. I looked at the Creeley quote on your site, but I’m not sure I understood his point, unless it was just that he felt alarmed that what he considered poetry might not be so considered by others, and that he felt this was unfair because nobody has any right to lay down the law on what poetry is? I think the fascination we feel for the topic is due to the fact that we know that poetry is something, something that touches us and sometimes disturbs us, so it has power. It is human nature to track the source of power, and to attempt to harness it, and we can’t do that until we know the nature, shape and size of the beast, so we keep on trying to see it!

The best poets outside of the literati do not get paid for their work. Even those who have books out. Or very little. I’ve never been paid anything for any of my poems (though that’s probably a bad example) but I was thinking, in fact, of Tony Harrison, one of the best poets of our age. He towers above any other contemporary poet I know in his command of diction and prosidy. He is the only poet I know who can claim that everything he writes is poetry. As I said in one of my own verses:

What you do or what you see
‘It’s all poetry to me’

Tony Harrison said somewhere that he can’t afford to buy his own books and was not allowed to go to see his own play once because he did not have a theater ticket and failed to convince the blokes that be that he was the author of the play! Ted Hughes also mocks those (in a letter) who pay ridiculously unreal (for a poet) amounts of cash to go see his play at the National when he sits outside worrying about where his next meal would come from!

Tia says:

Hi Rehan,

Thanks for drawing my attention to this post as I had forgotten about it! It’s true that while most artists see themselves as hard done by when it comes to income, poets have often been the even poorer cousins who are forced to publish for free if they want an audience, and even then may not get one! However, I hope that we are seeing a resurgence of poetry as a mainstream art form now – the energy and excitement around the Poet in the City events in London and the Spoken Word All Stars tour (most recently in Bradford)seem to confirm this. People are willing to pay for these events. But what is needed is greater public poetic literacy, which is under threat again with the proposed cuts to arts funding – see today’s post by Lockie MacKinnon on the Poet in the City blog at http://poetinthecity.wordpress.com

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