Poetry is for lovers, not cryptologists

Today I came across an interesting article in the New York Times ‘How To Read Poetry Today’. In it the author David Kirby discusses the idea that poetry is poetry to those who love it – who hear something beautiful in it, because it’s beautiful to them. The language of poetry isn’t about unpicking a web – we don’t always have to figure out what a poem means. It can, just be about falling in love with the sound of it. As Kirby says – “No wonder poetry doesn’t have a bigger audience. All that code cracking.”

Poetry is in some ways similar to the none-oral language of dance – perhaps even the wordless expressions of music. Often when I hear a piece of music, or witness a choreographed piece of movement I understand and appreciate it in a way I can’t explain. In the same vein, people might sometimes ask me ‘why are you with him?’ or ‘what do you see in her?’ and I can’t possibly begin to expand on the reasons why. These inherently personal artistic mediums – be they music, movement, poetry, even love, inspire a chemical reaction born from a very particular spectrum of feeling. What this spectrum is, or where it comes from I don’t know. And why should I dwell on it? Perhaps we should unpick the intensity of the feeling itself as opposed to agonise over ‘why?’ it’s there, or what its purpose is.

The best way to appreciate a natural, emotional reaction to language is to take poetry into schools – primary schools to be specific. Reading something like ‘The Thought Fox’ by Ted Hughes, or ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’ by E E Cummings, get’s a wonderful reaction – and not because the immediate response is to unravel the meaning. Because of their unhindered vivacity and confidence, children dive head first into what they enjoy about the writing: the sounds, the colours, the smells – and the feeling.  And here lies the inspiration.  In this way perhaps poetry can be enjoyed by most – either by those who absolutely adore it, or those who appreciate it from afar. Like the children in the classroom, we might appreciate the words for what they are, and in the end (and as a result of this freer approach) find our own way into the world of the poem and generate our own meaning.

In his article Kibry goes on to discuss the publication ‘Beautiful and Pointless: a guide to modern poetry’, by David Orr. Oddly enough, and according to Kirby, what sets this book apart is that it heralds poetry as a very different kind of artistic medium – one quite separate to something like music, or dance – because as Orr claims, ‘people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity….people who love poetry, don’t just love it a little. They love it a lot.’ Perhaps, there aren’t as many of these people as we think. Because perhaps, what most people consider poetry, isn’t actually poetry at all?  My editor once made a valid statement. He said: “….maybe it’s assumed that the media need to see some names they actually recognise, in order for poetry to have any kind of validation. Soon it’ll be Boris Johnson and Stephen Fry judging the TS Eliot, all in the name of ‘literary democracy’. And if such a literary democracy exists, where are the poets judging the Orange Prize or the Turner? So any old name can judge poetry, I suppose because poetry ‘belongs to the people’. Well so does litter.”

Perhaps then, poetry isn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t be – for everybody? What if it can’t be? The individual characteristics and traits of every given person, don’t appeal to everyone. We love certain people because of how they, in their physicality and spirituality, speak to us. Perhaps this is the same for poets and their work. More and more it seems poetry is becoming something that ‘anyone can do’ and therefore something that anyone can appreciate. Well perhaps this the wrong attitude to have. No wonder modern poetry seems so boring. This strange belief that poetry should be loved by us all has on the whole caused it to become too simplified – too base. Since when did winning a poetry competition consist of shouting very loudly and pulling your pants down? Well it did for one comp I’ve been to – even if it was spoken word. And anyway why does poetry that lends itself to performance more than page have to be more about full frontal stupidity, rather than language?

Maybe poetry is for lovers. People who truly love poetry are the only people who are able to appreciate it. It’s an interesting idea – one that I imagine will always be in discussion. I do think, that anyone can appreciate or admire the ‘distillation’ or ‘colour’ or ‘confusion’ of poetic language, even if doesn’t really speak to them on a shamanistic level. It is after all, one of the best ways of introducing creative language to people, and should be present, in its truest, deepest form, in all schools, universities, colleges and so on. However I also think that our intellects are quite naturally pulled towards other things. As we grow we pursue different things. We can’t be all be great mathematicians, scientists, composers, or writers. And at the same time we can’t all appreciate the standard of ingenuity and creativity that differs with each. Poetry, it has to be said, is one of the most difficult crafts to master – because in the end, it is a process that requires a mastering of a language far beyond the realms of normal speech. You have to be very human to be a poet I think – very animal in some ways – but also, very absent. We can I suppose, in our little moments, be all of these things. But we can’t all be a Cummings or a Stevens or a Hughes, and therefore neither can we all claim to appreciate a Cumming or a Stevens or Hughesian poem. Perhaps the reality is that poetry is strictly for its lovers. Like the love for you or me isn’t strictly for everyone. It’s only for those who want it. And perhaps in the end that’s how it should be.


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