Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What use is poetry ?

There was a really fascinating article by George Szirtes in yesterday's Guardian in response to a letter in an unnamed "serious newspaper" which asked "If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?" Szirtes notes that this question is

a bit Gradgrindish in nature. What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change. There have been poems that worked towards such change. Pope and Swift wrote politically. Thomas Hood's The Song of the Shirt was about the exploitation of seamstresses. Shelley, who argued that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world", addressed the subject of the Peterloo massacre in The Mask of Anarchy. The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear.

He goes on to observe that
The sweetest sound in all the world, said Finn MacCool of Irish legend, was the music of what happens. [...] The human mind encounters and accommodates all this. But the encounter is inchoate until it enters language. Language looks solid, but is endlessly provisional, slippery, thin and treacherous. It shines and gathers light like ice, but is fragile and likely to melt, dropping us into the inchoate world of one damn thing after another. It orders as best it can. It names, combines, suggests and sparkles but is never to be entirely trusted.

And Szirtes offers two propositions:

1. Poets are ordinary people with a special love and distrust of language.
2. Poetry is not a pretty way of saying something straight, but the straightest way of saying something complex.

Szirtes believes that for poets it is "vital to love and distrust language. It is absolutely vital to tell truths that catch something of the complex polyphonic music of what happens. Someone has got to do it."

The First World War poets, whose work I have studied and written about so often in the past, attempted to do just this: to tell truths of the events through which they lived whilst they lived. But of course poets are not alone in attempting to tell truths about events - novelists try to do it too, albeit (often) in more subtle ways. I know people who are decent, hardworking and caring, who nevertheless disdain the study of either poetry or novels, believing it to be a waste of time and money, but I feel they are wrong. Reading/studying and writing about novels and poetry enable the reader to find ways of arriving at the truths that the writer has presented in their work. Hopefully understanding such truths make us as individuals better, and therefore the world as a whole, a better place.

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I finally picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys from the library today - it's next on my to-read pile once I finish Emma (or possibly before then !)

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