The Purpose of Poetry
In Alan Lightman's novel Reunion, the protagonist, a sometime poet and avid fan of Emily Dickinson, meets the mysterious aunt of his lover. The aunt rather gruffly accounts both poetry and dance (the lover is a ballerina) as "useless." Then she backtracks a bit, and proposes that "uselessness" is not a vice.
However, at a place like MIT, governed as it is by results and products, the apparent "pointlessness" of poetry is a terrible stigma. In a sense, I share it - boarding a jetliner, I don't much care whether the designer has an informed knowledge of, say, the work of Robert Frost. But having spent my MIT career teaching undergraduate how to read poems with passion, attention, and informed analytic understanding, I cannot altogether avoid the question that is my title here.
It is an old question. Plato banned poets from his Republic because they concocted imagined worlds. Sir Philip Sidney was prompted to compose a renowned "Defense of Poesy" because some of his fundamentalist contemporaries converted that accusation to one of falsehood. By "poesy" Sidney meant more than just verse, but his effort remains relevant.
What possible use is there for poetry? In a world in which we have too many tasks and too little time, how can anyone defend the reading and/or writing of verse as an endeavor.
There is one defense by way of a Pleasure Principal - the American poet William Carlos Williams was given to insisting, at his readings, "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem." But Hedonism seems a slender reed, to say the least.
In one of his poems, Williams formulated the matter this way:
It is difficult
of what is found there.
Lest we think that Williams is some sort of air-headed Pollyanna, we need to recall that he was, for his entire adult life, a working physician, among the poor immigrant communities of Northern New Jersey. He knew quite well, in a diagnostic sense, what caused men and women to die miserably. We can hardly object to Williams' admission that poems are a bad source of news; but, enigmatically, he still stands by the declaration that there is something fundamental and life-giving to be found in them.
The contemporary poet Adrienne Rich, in a collection of essays which takes its title from Williams' polemical assertion, and which to some degree attempts to define that "something" about which Williams is so vague, puts it this way:
Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives . . .Poetry will always pick a quarrel with the found place, the refuge, the sanctuary . . . Even though the poet, a human being with many anxious fears, might want just to rest, acclimate, adjust, become naturalized, learn to write in a new landscape, a new language, poetry will go on harassing the poet until, and unless, it is driven away.
It will come as no surprise that Rich is fond of Emily Dickinson, a quarrelsome and unsettling poet from start to finish.
I had a student once who asked, rather shyly, whether it was still acceptable to turn to poetry for "wisdom." If wisdom = consolation, Rich would loudly answer in the negative. I have myself written a short essay (you can find it on my Website, dutchiamb) arguing that the unsettling aspect of poetry is central, that what poetry most persistently wants to do is alter our whole perception of the world. But not everyone has these perverse views. Consider the poet Jane Cooper, who offers a more healing perspective:
We are not separate. And the work for all of us must begin, I think, with the stripping down of words, with listening, with acknowledging our fear, with getting back to origins, with learning to live, however perilously, in this moment, for it is our only life. Poems are moments of the most acute consciousness. Through them we recognize the now and here , and yet we enter into a dialogue with history and otherness. Poems are made in solitude, but they move toward connectedness.
That leaves hard work, and risk, and discomfort, but at least it offers connectedness as a reward. Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobelist, speaks of the "redress" which poetry provides:
In the activity of poetry . . . there is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales, a reality which can only be imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual. Poetry has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. . . . Poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's nature as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the surface of the water [in a scullery bucket Heaney recalls from his farm childhood].
It is striking to hear a poet try to mobilize the language of physics, although it must be noted that in the end he falls back on memory and metaphor.
The late American poet, Audre Lorde, wrote an essay which has a polemical title – "Poetry is not a luxury." She defends that proposition thus:
The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing on the product which we live, and the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. . . . [I]t is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, . . . but already felt . . .If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core - the fountain - of our power, . . . we give up the future of our worlds.
We have accumulated quite a package of answers to the issue with which we began – greater attention, deeper understanding (especially self -understanding), the possibility of transformation and action: all this from "what is found" or put there in a poem. The recent American poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, offers a more simple explanation of the "point" of poetry: we are hard-wired that way:
I presume that the technology of poetry . . . evolved for specific uses: to hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings rapidly and memorably. To share those feelings and ideas with companions, and also with the head and with those to come after us.
Why are there poets? Don't blame professors or prize competitions or Hallmark Cards - it's all a matter of evolution. If you look carefully at Pinsky's formulation, however, you see the same terms – connectedness, both within and beyond individual lifespans, the naming of complex ideas. To which he adds two more crucial elements – intensity and sensuous appeal . It is a hard but essential truth: good poetry (much less great poetry) cannot be read quickly, but it should always provide some variety of pleasure.