What is poetry for?

I thought I’d write tentatively about poetry. ‘Why tentative?’ you may ask. Largely because it’s a broad subject with many different facets, but also because I don’t feel like an expert, so this will be a very personal view and please share your own ideas. Don’t be scared; this will be painless…

I disagree with Oscar Wilde’s idea that all art is useless. He wrote this in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray; a book which I’ve only just dusted down and dug into. For me, poetry prizes open a door into a new world. One not unlike the mundane world we generally inhabit, but – like all art – its goal is to provide us with renewed perspectives. New eyes, fresh minds.

There’s something in this for the poet too. When (and if!) I write it’s always a voyage of discovery. I may start with a single word or an intriguing phrase. Perhaps I want to explore a new form or scratch some kind of psychological itch. Poets are not unselfish people: they want recognition but they are also interested in exploring their internal landscapes. The mind is a strange country.

When John Milton penned Paradise Lost he had a vast religious vision to navigate. ‘Sing Heav’nly Muse’ he wrote, seeming to ask some obscure Pagan being for inspiration while melding Classical themes with Christian thought. I’m not a fan, but I must bow to his genius all the same.

I can almost hear the old bugger muttering, ‘I hope this one works out.’ The fear of an endlessly blank page haunts us all when we begin to write. As Placebo sang, ‘Got the muse in my head she’s universal.’

Jumping (not so effortlessly) from Milton to John Clare, I remember standing by Clare’s grave in Helpston cemetery, haunted by a gentle kind of sadness. My parents were kind enough to drop me there on the way to some long forgotten place. Someone had kindly placed a blue flower on his tomb.

How plain and futile that single slab of stone seemed. ‘This is how all life ends’, I thought. ‘But at least someone’s still thinking about him!’ To be revered by history is the closest we can get to immortality.

Like many poets Clare was an outsider. A small man, he would sit in the Bluebell enjoying a quiet beer or two. I say ‘quiet’ because people tended to avoid him, fearful that he would write about them. This is not unlike the primitive belief that a camera is also a box for capturing souls.

What history has recorded is not a batch of unsolicited poems; rather it remembers local ignorance and an inability to understand Clare’s status – no matter how humble – as a vessel of truth. If art isn’t useless then neither are poets.

There are as many types of poet as there are poems, and this bloggy ramble cannot do justice to the subject. Poetry works simultaneously on many different levels: for example, rhythm, rhyme (if used), metre, form, symbolism, metaphor. All lock together to provide the reader with a subtle aural experience. Assuming, that is, she bothers to read it aloud.

Poetry need not be difficult. Ever the intellectual, T. S. Eliot has a reputation for being obscure, but Philip Larkin is perhaps more accessible. Poetry can be high minded, low minded, scatological, evasive. It can be as lengthy as an epic or pithy as a Haiku. I believe there’s a poem for everyone and we should avoid clouding the subject.

Poetry reveals the world and the world reveals poetry. Enjoy it while you can because life is as fragile as a flower on John Clare’s grave.

Footnote: Clare saw his muse as a ‘Pegasus’ which he had to ride to the very end. After his well documented insanity he continued to write, so perhaps inspiration can be stronger than we think…

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