Firstly, do we need to read poetry? After all, lots of people don’t read poetry and seem to get along just fine. What’s more, there’s plenty of poetry even I would say the world could do without. Need makes poetry sound like a medicine that doesn’t go down easily but is for our own good: this is how poems are pushed in schools, and it’s why the general public have such a low opinion of the art.
We might ask the question in a slightly different way: what is it that poetry can give us that we don’t otherwise find available in the world?
Poetry is the preeminent art of language. It is language that is conscious of itself, that reflects on itself as language, and yet, not in spite but because of this, it is also language at its most present, its most alive, feeling and responding to the ecstasies and blockages of articulation. As we read, our consciousness unfolds with the consciousness of the poet in a moment of connection. It can be a compelling experience.
What poetry can give us above all is connection, which is why the love poem is the genre’s quintessential form. Poems can make what otherwise seem like remote relations alive, available, urgent.
Plato thought poets should be banished because they appealed to people’s passions rather than their reason, and were therefore a threat to ‘order’. Adapting this, the assumption of the last hundred or so years has been that poetry is uniquely positioned to change people’s consciousness as a disruptive practice — as an art form that, in challenging official language, could be a political act. The best poetry of the last century has been partly interested in poetry as a confrontation: something that can challenge habitual thinking by making it newly unfamiliar in imaginative language.
This assumes that poetry, as an institution, plays a key role in social discourse, an assumption that seems anachronistic now. In the twenty-first century, aesthetic pleasure is back in, and the question of need seems an awkwardly joyless way of thinking about poems. We should read poems less because they’re good for us and more because we find them moving, or beautiful, or are able to enjoy the feeling poetry gives us of relation to another, of being addressed, of sharing the joys and challenges of speaking.
What poetry can give us above all is connection, which is why the love poem is the genre’s quintessential form. Poems can make what otherwise seem like remote relations alive, available, urgent. At its best, poetry makes what seems to be out there (as absent lover, as apparently external nature, as seemingly unassailable social fact) newly here, animated, related and responsive. This can be exhilarating, but it is also truer to the world, especially our world, where the interdependence of each to everyone is now total but also often hidden, behind disavowals of these connections and declarations of individual strength and sovereignty.
When Donald Trump wants to put America First, or build a wall, he’s denying how the US position in the world is dependent on its relations with it, with all the violence, exploitation and, yes, sometimes love that this involves. Poetry can tell us something different about the world: as an art form it has a unique capability to avow connection, vulnerability, solidarity — and more than telling, it can make us feel it.
This is an interesting question, not least because it simply would not have been asked a hundred years ago. It would have been obvious to most literate people that reading poetry was a worthwhile occupation. Poems and poets were valued: Byron was a bestseller in the Romantic period; Tennyson a Victorian celebrity. But now even winners of poetry’s most prestigious awards may sell only a few hundred copies of their prize-winning work. Something has clearly happened to make general attitudes towards reading poetry different from those that existed in earlier times. So why should we still read poetry now?
I would offer three main reasons. First, what we might broadly call the poetic mode of apprehending the world is fundamental to our common humanity. Poets have always known this, but the dominance of more scientifically based worldviews has made it less obvious in the modern world. Recent research has made the importance of poetic modes of thinking clearer, though. In the 1970s, Lakoff and Johnson’s groundbreaking work, Metaphors We Live By, showed how metaphorical ways of construing the world permeate all kinds of understanding and response, including the most functional and scientific. Poetry as an art form is just the most highly developed orchestration of the various modes of lateral thinking that are integral to human consciousness. These help us make connections, rather than see the world as atomised and detached from us.
People exercise and go to gyms to make their bodies supple and strong enough to cope with life’s physical demands; poetry might be conceived as a kind of linguistic gymnasium, stretching and building our capacity for language...
Poetry is more developed than ordinary ways of linking through metaphor, though, because it is language at its most resourceful. People exercise and go to gyms to make their bodies supple and strong enough to cope with life’s physical demands; poetry might be conceived as a kind of linguistic gymnasium, stretching and building our capacity for language (and thus also for thought) to cope with life’s mental demands. Moreover, poetry’s distinctive rhythms, rhymes and images help it stay in our minds for longer than ordinary language. Hence, W.H.Auden called poetry ‘memorable speech’. Our recent Poetry and Memory Project showed that for many people poetry continues to be an immensely important resource, both for their inner lives and as a personal touchstone within a shared culture.
Finally, we should keep reading poetry because it can enable us to access, identify and articulate deep feelings. Its structures can contain us and help us to bear the unbearable – which is why, at moments of heightened emotion, such as weddings and funerals, only a poem will do. When the staunch atheist, Philip Larkin, wrote about church as a ‘serious place’, he was thinking about poetry as much as churches. Poetry can be funny and provocative but it is also the most spiritual of all the arts, alongside music, to which it is closely related. We need to keep reading it because - in a rapidly changing, largely secular age - it is a space that we can grow wise in. It gives, as Shakespeare recognised, a ‘local habitation and a name’ to what would otherwise be beyond apprehension.
See more information here: www.poetryandmemory.com