Why Poetry Matters
What this essay reminds me of, is the general tendency of poetry that unifies the gesture, not the specific gestures that divide us. The specific gestures that divide us are important to note, and to argue over, because we really are all trying toward a unification with reality in our poems, and so noting where we think others are missing this union becomes a necessity. That said, a weak poem does much less damage to the world than a weak law. Just saying.
Anyway, the article doesn’t say anything that you haven’t heard before, I’m sure, but it’s good to be continually reminded, so here are some excerpts:
One tends to forget that poetry is wisdom. I was in Morocco recently, and a devout Muslim mentioned to me that the Prophet Muhammad, in his book of sayings, the Hadith, had said as much. But the Koran also teaches, I was told, that poets are dangerous, and that decent people should avoid them. That reminded me of Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his ideal republic because he thought they were liars. Reality, for Plato, was an intense, perfect world of ideas. The material world represents reflections of that ideal, always imperfect. Artistic representations of nature were thus at several removes from the ideal, hence suspicious.
But Plato also had other worries about poets. In the Republic, he complained that they tend to whip up the emotions of readers in unhelpful ways. They stir feelings of “lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure.” Poetry “feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up,” he said, while only the “hymns of the gods and praises of famous men” are worthy of readers. The law and reason are far better.
In “Education by Poetry” . . . Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, “you don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.”
Poets . . . make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley famously wrote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.”
The world of the poet is largely an interior world of the intellect and the emotions — where we mostly live, in fact. And poetry bolsters that interior realm. In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become “so violent,” both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”
Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” That is, it doesn’t shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.
[JG: I will jump in to interject here, the more interesting reading of “poetry makes nothing happen,” where the nothing is the nothing that is there, as Stevens writes, and as Kay Ryan plays with in “Nothing Ventured.”]
Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called “spiritual.” He puts forward three principles worth considering:
“Words are signs of natural facts.”
“Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.”
“Nature is the symbol of the spirit.”
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 42, Page B16