Something's gone seriously wrong with poetry
and it's time we faced up to it. Poetry is
important but no longer has a public readership
because true poetry is no longer written.
What is poetry? What is its point or purpose? My
reply is unorthodox, unfashionable, anti-zeitgeist
but not, I think, wrong (or at least not too wrong).
To begin at the bottom, poetry in English is a
pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Poetry
has to be a pattern of sound in some way and in
English stress is the most basic building block of
all. It's always been that way. That alone should
tell us how fundamental it is. Take the Old English: Thaes ofereode thisses swa maeg
(That over-went this so may:
That calamity passed so may this one.)
And the Middle English: In a summer season when soft was the sun
Stressed syllables hold both of them together. That's all
Hopkins was getting at with his Sprung Rhythm, isn't it?
Stick in the stressed and the unstressed can take care of
themselves. Ballads do. So do nursery rhymes (are children
taught them any longer? Master Humpty Dumpty and you've
Poetry is rare. (Verse is common). Poetry is memorable,
sliding easily into the mind and memory and staying there.
Poetry is quotable. You can quote it to make a point.
It delights, brings joy, and enlarges the mind and
consciousness, making us into better people.
Poetry is spiritual.
It works by shocking the thinking mind into stillness,
if only for a brief moment. Into this void flows the
deepest thing we can know - which is … what? Zen might
call it a mild form of satori, or enlightenment. Others
might say it is a feeling of transcendent joy or a meeting
with the Divine. For some it comes unasked throughout
their lives, for others it is triggered by physical love,
by art, or by landscape.
To my mind it is an experience of the fullness at the
heart of things. On reflection, I think I’d just call
It's different in degree, but not in kind, from the
very highest forms of mysticism: mystic union with
Poetry seems to stun the mind in two ways; through an
image conveyed by words, and through the sound of
syllables in combination, rather like music, maybe.
To some poets, such as Swinburne, sound is all.
Provence, to him, was less a place, more a euphony: By a tideless dolorous midland sea
In a land of sand and ruin and gold.
Images alone can shut down the mind, too. Prose
translations of Japanese haiku work on this level: "a
viewof the sea through summertime pines and a temple
lantern cut from stone."
Need the words make sense? On the whole, yes, if only
because, when confronted with a puzzle, the thinking
mind won't rest until it's solved. Chunks of Eliot to
this day are marred by obscurity, I think, and
therefore work only stutteringly.
Form and content, then, are both important. On the
other hand, poetry about an emptiness at the heart
of things may not work at all, or at least not work
well. The emptiness of Larkin's Mr Bleaney, dying
alone in a rented room, shrivels the soul. Poetry
These are big claims; if I am only fractionally
right, it still places poetry among the very few
things that matter very much (and, remember, most
things don't matter at all). Butin the English-speaking
world it is all but stone dead. Where are today's lines
half as good as these? And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium
Vacant shuttles weave the wind.
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The simplest test of true poetry is memorability. Poetry
is memorable and memorisable. Does it lodge unasked in
the mind and change you? That's what counts. Nothing else.
This article first appeared in the January
2006 edition of Acumen - the Literary
An edited version is also of one of the
Prefaces in Melanie
, a book of verse
published by Coracle Books,Thornham Magna, Suffolk,
Other books of poetry by the same author:Capperbar
Morning on the Mountain
The Moon at Midnight
c Dick Sullivan 2006