English poets have long felt the need to defend or explain the importance of poetry. The first major example of this is The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney in 1583, and the best known is Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which Shelley makes the famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Modern poets feel this strain particularly, for our age is one in which poetry is not frequently read and poets are cast to the sidelines of culture. (Whether or not this is the usual state of affairs for a poet — in any age — is up for debate).
A great example of the genre is an essay by Adrienne Rich from this past weekend’s Guardian. She begins by breaking free of a few of the traditional vagaries used to defend poetry, insisting that poetry “is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.”
After summarizing and dismissing the argument that the power of poetry has been diminished in a post-Holocaust era, Rich attempts to stake out some ground for poetry, after recognizing the particularly contemporary difficulties it faces:
Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it’s not a mass-market “product”, it doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles; it’s too “difficult” for the average mind; it’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s; it is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free-market critique of poetry.
There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together – and more.
Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses – how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn’t exist. But this only reveals their existence.
But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, “There is no alternative”.
Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images – is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism – a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the “free” market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.
You’d do well to read the whole essay. After that, if you’re interested in reading some of Rich’s own poetry, I would recommend Diving into the Wreck.
(The painting pictured above is “The Cremation of Shelley”, by Louis-Edward Fournier.)