why write poetry

Why write poetry? Because poetry is one way of telling the truth, a way often superior to others. How so?

One argument goes back to Aristotle, to his famous distinction between history and poetry. History reports what happened, and is therefore subject to all the constraints and imperfections of actual life. No general is a perfect embodiment of courage in battle, steadfastness in adversity, far-sightedness in decision-making, etc. But poetry uses words in their fuller potential, and creates representations that are more complete and meaningful than nature can give us in the raw.

A second argument borrows the approach of the Postmodernists, who claim that what we experience of the world is with and through language.  The claim is greatly exaggerated, since we all have experiences not readily conveyed in words — riding a bike, listening to music, etc. — and meaning is not finally anchored in mere words but in bodily physiology and social usage. But language undoubtedly does colour our perceptions and modify responses, which politicians and the media understand very well. Words are not therefore neutral entities, but have intentions, associations, histories of usage, which in poetry are given their truer natures by employing the traditional resources of language. Rhythm, segregation into lines, metaphor etc. are not ornament, something added and inessential, but a means to a more exact commentary and expressive power. In this sense, the ordinary language of commerce and the professions, as that of everyday speech, is a stunted, stripped down and abbreviated shadow of what poetry should achieve.

Furthermore, there is no "standard language", but only a wide spectrum of usage from which we select for the purpose in hand. Even everyday speech is not a natural benchmark since each of us — as every playwright knows — uses speech slightly differently: according to our personality, the occasion, our social standing, whom we're addressing, what we want to express or get done. Our words may be apt or off the point, but they are not more natural for being used loosely or 'instinctively'. We admire the speaker who achieves exactly what is needed in a certain situation, and that exactness, but more honest, more personal, more considered, is what we look for in poetry. Poetry has more time at its disposal, and much greater resources of language, and its appropriateness is indeed governed by what the classical and renaissance worlds knew as rhetoric.

The point needs emphasizing. Unbeknown to most poets, British and American philosophy has attempted to find a language that should be logically transparent and free of ambiguity. That language should express the truth when all paraphrase is stripped away. It should state irreducible facts that are independent of their expression. The search has lasted the better part of a century, and has comprehensively failed. It cannot be done. What has emerged, amongst a greater understanding of such enterprises generally, is the extent to which philosophic enquiry itself is governed by rules, standard expressions and agreed procedures. In this regard, philosophy seems close to poetry, though its creations are very different. Both aim at truth, but a truth based on different perceptions.

So arise some important consequences for poetry writing. Poetry is not exempt from the requirements of the other literary arts. It is not mere fancy, but an attempt to tell the truth in a fuller and more authentic manner. We still want that truth to be new-fashioned and not simply imported from other experiences or situations — one argument against cliché — but we do not judge that truth by originality. We need the new-fashioning to be appropriate, illuminating, to sharpen rather than distort perception and understanding. We judge a particular phrase or line in the context of the poem as a whole, and the poem itself against the poet's larger work and outlook. To say of a novel "I didn't believe in the setting" is to make a damaging criticism, and poetry needs also to be underwritten by experience.

Poetry Reconciles Us to the World

However different we may be from other members of the animal kingdom in constructing our own world through thought, insight and artistic creation, human beings also need coherence and consistency in their surroundings. In this broader sense, the history of western art is a search for purpose in a increasingly strange and hostile universe. Since the demise of medieval theology, and the fragmentation of knowledge, the great intellectual traditions of the west have attempted to find some bedrock of belief, something that is fundamental and cannot be questioned further. The attempt seems to have failed. Whatever else the twentieth century learned, one thing became clear: the world is stranger and more various than anything our intellectual equipment can encompass.

So has grown the great influence of the arts in western societies. The arts are not reductive, but seek pattern, order and consistency in the very midst of variety.  Poetry may not change the world — much though Marxists insist that it should — but it can enable us to see life whole, with clarity and understanding. The great theatre of the world is written in verse, and its poetry reconciles us to the manifest absurdities, injustices and cruelties of our natures.  In art we put aside the struggle for individual preeminence, said Schopenhauer, and learn to see life as it is directly given to us through timeless ideas.

Why Write Poetry? Demanding and Satisfying

For much of its history, poetry has been the product of a highly educated, leisured class. Reams of competent but somewhat pedestrian verse were scribbled by eighteenth-century parsons, and the more popular poets were issued in reprint after reprint for the Victorian middle classes. But the widespread osmosis of poetry into English cultural life may start in mass education at the turn of the century, and the subsequent need for standards and syllabuses. Today, poetry is again a minority interest, and one where craft is greatly subordinate to stylistic movements and political allegiances. Neither by the public at large, nor the practitioners themselves, can poetry still be called "the queen of the arts".

Many postwar developments have contributed to this fall from grace.  Knowledge has become more specialized, and very abstruse theories have been devised to keep favoured styles of poetry within the ambit of academic study. Divergent styles have become anti-intellectual or even infantile. The sixties stress on personal expression is still working its way through society, and this iconoclasm naturally distrusts tradition and long-practised skills.  Radical criticism has irrupted into literary criticism, and insists that literature be judged on the nonliterary criteria of continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and ideology.

But poetry has always possessed the deeper roots and the larger promise. Prose is a comparatively late development in literature, and the masterworks of the past were predominantly in verse. Remove the poetry of the Greek playwrights, of Lucretius, Ovid and Virgil, the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Racine, Milton and Hugo, and the western literary heritage dwindles to a thin shadow of its former glory. Poets and poetry were prized in the Chinese world, fought over by the early Arabs, sought by lavish patronage in the hedonistic courts of the Timurid and Indian rulers. Poetry enters into the fabric of a people, and to be able to quote Ferdowsi or Hafez in Iran, even today, is the mark of an educated man.

As we grow older we read less, and that less tends to be poetry. With age comes knowledge of life, and a certain impatience with irrelevancies and self-importance.  And writers too, though they may mellow into a larger humanity, tend also to be pithier and more to the point. Poetry is the most concentrated of all literary expression, and, if an obvious example were needed, we find the prosier plays of Shakespeare's middle period give way to the terse, eloquent poetry of Cymberline and The Tempest.

If writers and readers often return to poetry when they have a wider experience of life, there is also the deep and abiding joy that poetry, and often poetry alone, can bring. To a trained ear — and an extended training is needed — there is nothing to match verse that lifts so readily into saying what is exact, evocative and moving. Prose by comparison seems a muddled and lumpy medium, where there is little to separate the good from the merely competent. Poetry displays its bloodline immediately, and if it is more difficult to write, its successes are infinitely the more worth having. 

Why Write Poetry? Versatile and Wide-Ranging

Poetry is the most versatile and wide-ranging of literary forms: things can be said in poetry that cannot be said in prose.

Is this true? To many readers, poetry seems as out-of-date and constricting as an eighteenth-century stomacher, an artificial language that hardly exists outside school essays and unvisited library shelves. And if extraordinary things can be said in poetry, its most experienced practitioners will often despair of completing something of even modest competence.

Ease and prolixity have nothing to do with versatility. Poetry is a compact medium, needing great concentration to read, and even more to write. It is overwhelmingly a high art form, and so demands an excellent education, acute sensitivity, broad experience of life, and decided literary gifts. Facility only comes with practice, and the best way to appreciate poetry is to keep reading and rereading it, critiques and guides at the ready. Certainly it is hard work, but so are many things in life. Dancers must practice daily, and often start with the most demanding and unforgiving of training provided by ballet. Painters begin their apprenticeship with drawing, economy of statement, precise articulation of hand and eye, visual awareness all being developed in a medium where the essentials cannot be overlooked or fudged.

Granted that its conventions and devices may be necessary, what is the evidence that poetry can meet all demands? Would it be appropriate for a catalogue of horrors in a Nazi concentration camp? Would it serve for a difficult letter to our bank manager? Yes it would, provided by poetry is meant language at its most authentic, effective and resonant. All speech and writing is governed by conventions, so that a frank, courteous and well-thought-out letter in the usual form might well extend the overdraft. And even if we felt that a business letter could not be poetry of a sort, albeit of a very modest sort, and something a novelist would not spend time in getting right, we could at least accept that from poetry the descent can only be to prose. As for the concentration camp, its events are such that a plain rendering of the facts would suffice. Only in truth the facts would not be "speaking for themselves", but inevitably have been selected and ordered so as to serve the purpose of the report. Again a poetry of a sort, an astringent, sombre poetry requiring fine judgement and sensitivity not to turn horror into Grand Guignol.

Consider then what poets have achieved. Despite all the advantages enjoyed by contemporary plays and films — the technology, the "real-life" dramas, modern idiom in speech and attitudes — Shakespeare is still the most performed of dramatists, giving us a gallery of recognizable characters that no one has rivalled. Dante provides us with a sharp-etched picture of thirteenth-century Italian politics. Byron manages to work in slang and details of a water pump into Don Juan, and Ezra Pound incorporates views on capitalist economics in the Cantos. Philip Larkin paints the domestic nihilism of the contemporary welfare state, and Ted Hughes's animals are exactly observed. The list can be infinitely extended.

But what do we say on the Modernist and Postmodernist movements, that claim an abrupt break with the past? With the Modernists's love of experimentation, anti-realism, individualism and intellectualism came a great narrowing of aims and accomplishments. Poetry was not writing at its highest pitch, but something fabricated altogether differently. Poems were free-standing creations of their authors, and they had no independent truths or emotions to impart. Their excellence lay in the subtlety, not to say complexity, with which meanings disclosed themselves to literary analysis. Modernist poetry was a highbrow art, drawing more on esoteric shadings and the inner lives of poets than the joys and sorrows of the workaday world. With Postmodernism these trends were accentuated. Writers became the self-appointed spiritual guardians of language, championing its creative and arbitrary nature over its more prosaic powers to represent, analyze and discover. Postmodernist poems do not represent anything but themselves. They are collages of words whose meaning lies only in their specific arrangement on the page.

They are certainly to be taken seriously. A good deal of current scholarship, funding and publishing centres on these creations, and no one wishes to overlook the best achievements of the last hundred years. Yet Postmoderist poems are often thin and unsatisfying. They require buttressing by abstruse theory, which is itself supported by a contemporary scholasticism, a turning away from science and a willful misreading linguistics, psychology and continental philosophy. It can still be argued that such poetry says things that prose cannot, but such things have no wider reference. They do not help us to see the world with greater vividness, clarity and understanding, and perhaps for this reason have not won the heart of the general reading public.

But there's poetry and poetry. Much of what's published today is probably best called journalism, a recycling of themes in an unexceptional style. Occasionally the writing lifts into the striking and memorable, and we praise as poetry what was once within the scope of the average novelist or essay writer. Poetry can say more than prose, and perhaps should say more, but may be lacking at present the necessary courage, independence of thought and informed reading.

Why Write Poetry? A Special Mode of Knowledge

Poetry achieves a special mode of knowledge — an essential, full and vital representation of the world where other representations are somewhat abstract and abbreviated.

Here we enter very contentious territory. Past writers have occasionally claimed as much — Aristotle, Shakespeare and Shelley for example — but contemporary aesthetics is almost wholly opposed to such a view. The earlier arguments are numerous and compelling, however, and come from several disciplines.

1. Language is built of metaphors which, though largely dead, still guide our responses and understanding. This is easily demonstrated. In the first sentence all these started as metaphors: language, built, metaphors, largely, dead, still, guide, responses and understanding — as a glance at an etymological dictionary will show. Moreover, change "large" to "generally" and the meaning shifts. Large comes from largus, the Latin for copious, whereas generally derives from genus, the Latin for birth or stock. Not a great shift in meaning, but one a conscientious writer would be aware of. Rephrase the sentence altogether — "language is at base metaphorical, and that base unconsciously affects our behaviour" — and the rephrasings opens up new vistas of use and association. Metaphor is a mapping from source (familiar and everyday) to target domains (abstract, conceptual or internal), and this process cannot be evaded, however grey and bureaucratic the language employed.

For everyday purposes that metaphoric nature is of course minimized or overlooked. The law uses a circumlocutory latinized language. The various sciences each have their preferred sets of imagery, but usually employ an mechanical language with commonplace verbs linking heavy noun clusters. Commerce prefers a commonplace style with quaint vestiges of social address — "I should be obliged if you would..." And so on. Whatever philosophy may wish, there seems no core meaning that is independent of its expression.

The ancient world never supposed there was. Close argumentation suited the philosopher in his private study, while a heightened, richer language was needed for public speaking. But the second was not inferior to the first, indeed the very contrary as the orator had to demonstrate the larger humanity which a classical education imparted. Poetry — and poetry in the Roman world was written for the speaking voice — was naturally allied to oratory, but it was not diminished by appealing to all sectors of the audience. In short, persuasion was the essence of speech and writing, not irrefutable evidence or truth.

Modern metaphor theories support this view, and link it to brain functioning. Metaphors reflect schemas, which are constructions of reality using the assimilation and sensorimotor processes to anticipate actions in the world. Schemas are plural, interconnecting in our minds to represent how we perceive, act, respond and consider. Far from being mere matters of style, metaphors organize our experience, creating realities which guide our futures and reinforce interpretations. Truth is therefore truth relative to some understanding, and that understanding is plural, involving categories which emerge from our interaction with experience. Poetry, which uses language with an acute awareness of its metaphoric content, is at once the most vital and authentic of utterances, conveying a knowledge that is not generalized.

2. Hermeneutics began as the interpretation of ancient documents — i.e. making a consistent picture when the words themselves drew their meaning from the document as a whole, which the words had yet to spell out — but has moved on to literature in general. Inevitably we live on our historical inheritance, a dialogue between the old traditions and our present needs. There is no way of assessing that inheritance except by trial and error, by living out its precepts and their possible reshapings. Literature not only bears the self-image and moral dimensions of the society that produced it, but the products of the resistance exerted by the individual circumstances of creation to wider social presuppositions. We cannot filter out these presuppositions without replacing them by own alternatives, which later readers will also come to see as prejudices, part of the sedimented ideology that makes up our utterances. All we can do is allow the two sets of presuppositions to confront each other, and grow into the larger opportunities of their fused horizons.

Poetry above all is sensitive to the past usage of words and their latent properties, and it is therefore poetry which speaks the fullest truth. The gaps, inconsistencies, corruptions and prejudices of language are not something we can ultimately escape from, and the smooth grey language of business or government is not so much a papering over as a repression of what is most vital and individual to us. Truthful language has to link both writer and reader, to be continually self-verifying if not self-evident, and to extend through the changing circumstances of a man's life, validating itself through being re-experienced.

3. Poetry is banned from many areas of public life. Its truths, its wider social reflections and moral dimensions are precisely what is not wanted for government, advertising and commercial use. Academia also prefers a thinner and more neutral language, where arguments can be closely reasoned and rest finally on "evidence that speaks for itself". But what is this neutral language? The heroic attempts this century to find a logically transparent language have failed, and a language reduced to "essentials" seems more an impoverished language than one of greater exactness. The discipline of extended and rigorous argument — i.e. philosophy — has recourse to symbolic logic, but that logic is not without its problems. Everyday statements have first to be converted to that symbolic expression, and that involves procedures that are reductive, open to question and ultimately sanctioned by the practices of the philosophic community. Once in symbolic form, logic is immeasurably more powerful, but there are many logics, and sometimes inconsistencies within each logic. And the great philosophical questions — the proof of existence, the nature of truth, the analyzes of meaning — have not been solved or clarified: in most cases the questions remain more perplexing than ever.

Why Write Poetry? Insight into All Forms of Writing

Poetry provides a deep insight into all forms of writing, which ripens eventually into an informed love of literature.

This rests not on argument but the experience of most readers. Certainly there are rare souls who find the coarse medium of prose unsatisfying or downright repellent, just as there are many prose readers who find poetry too demanding or insubstantial. But the great majority of seasoned readers relish both, and realize that prose at its best rises to the condition of poetry, and is enjoyable to the extent that poetry is enjoyed.

Must a love of poetry inevitably develop into a greater love of literature in all its forms? Not necessarily. Much of the literature winning rave reviews is ephemeral, and an apprenticeship in poetry may make it even less appealing. But experienced readers understand the commercial pressure behind publishing, read the reviews cautiously, and make their own selections. The argument remains. Life is short, and there is every reason to insist on the best in the hours stolen from other activities.

Why Write Poetry? General Apprenticeship

Poetry is only one form of literature, and many good poets have handled the other forms indifferently. Indeed, the gift of poetry seems rather special, almost an illness. Nonetheless, poetry often forms part of introductory courses in creative writing, and for this reason: poetry displays its excellences deep in the grain of language. Prose is written in phrases, often somewhat ready-made phrases, but poetry is individual crafted in words or syllables. Everything counts — content, story, genre, diction, imagery, metaphor, syntax, rhythm — and nothing shows this interdependence so well to the beginner as writing poetry. Later courses develop a writer’s particular bent, and will specialize in the skills — journalism, short-story writing, articles — that the trainee will need to make a career in a competitive and not overly-rewarded profession. But poetry provides an concentrated introduction to the interrelated complexities of writing, and is recognized as such. There can be few journalists who haven't announced at dinner parties that they will someday give up their second-rate scribbling and concentrate on what they know they have within them. No one believes them, but the recognition is there.

Why Write Poetry? Convenience

First there are the time scales. A poem or an article can be written in hours, a play in weeks and a novel in months. All generally take longer, often very much longer, but poetry seems easiest to the hobbyist or amateur writer.

Then the publishing side. Whatever the standard, the style or content of a poem, it is usually possible to find a publisher of sorts. But with this proviso. Most mainstream publishers will not handle poetry: they cater for the mass market and poetry cannot be sold in bulk. The dozen or so leading publishers who do have poetry lists are wary of publishing unknowns: contacts are needed and a good track record in the top literary journals. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get into the better literary journals, and practically impossible — editors' protestations to the contrary — to get into the top ones until well known.

For most poets, that leaves the less prestigious literary journals, the small presses, and the commercial publications which have the odd corner for a poem. Also self-publishing, by individuals or writing circles, which is much resorted to, increasingly on the Internet.

Why Write Poetry? Sheer Pleasure

Most people write for pleasure. They have always enjoyed poetry, and now have the time — through retirement, unemployment or the children leaving home — to try their own hand at this absorbing genre. Poetry writing is indeed one of the fast-growing areas of the retirement industry. Practitioners number tens of thousands, and innumerable small presses scattered throughout the English-speaking world exist to publish their work.

Nonetheless, poetry is not easy. The medium is a compact one, needing great concentration to read, and even more to write. First attempts are not apt to be very good. Nevertheless, even the most pedestrian effort occasionally lifts into the vivid and memorable, and kindles a response in its reader. And that is worth a great deal, in spite of all the recent developments.

Poets please themselves. There is nothing to stop good writers producing work that they like reading. Or what they consider worth reading. A beginner may ask: Do I have the talent to make it as a writer? Tutors handle the matter tactfully, saying that determination is essential to unlock the depths of a writer’s personality and potential. They point out that though there may be something perverse about the enforced seclusion necessary to perfect what will interest very few people, all good writers put themselves through such purgatory. And the reasons are not merely psychological, but the satisfaction that the writing supplies. Without talent, nothing of importance can be achieved. But without increasing absorption, fascination and sheer pleasure in literary craftsmanship, that talent will never see the light of day. Native ability and hard work are essential to poetry, and pleasure is the stimulus to both.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.