Tuesday 6 November 2007

What poetry is and can be

A response to the Battle of Ideas poetry discussion, London, 28 October 2007

During this year’s Battle of Ideas, I went to a talk and poetry reading called Should Poetry Please?, and came away with mixed feelings. Although I found the discussions interesting, I thought that they were founded on a conception of poetry that diverged quite dramatically from my own interests in what poetry is or can be. This argument, therefore, is a brief attempt to set out a few of my own thoughts.

The ideas I propose, which are sometimes in contention with those put forward by Glyn Maxwell, William Sieghart and Shirley Dent (the speakers and chair of the event), are not meant to be definitive. There are as many justifications for poetry as there are poets. It’s just that these happen to be mine.

1. ‘Poetry is not politics.’

Shirley Dent made this statement at the end of the talk, reiterating it a couple of times and implying that those in the audience who believed in the power of poetry to cause change were deluded.

This is an assertion which can only be (trivially) true if politics is defined in the most literal way as the legislative and administrative procedures by which society is governed. Surely though, more than thirty years after the personal and the political were brought together by feminist activists such as Carol Hanisch, this narrow interpretation of politics won’t hold. Politics exists wherever power relations obtain, that is to say, everywhere in the public sphere. Poetry is constantly going into the public sphere; it is language constantly becoming public. The binary division between personal and political is an illusion that poetry, in common with all forms of social life, explodes.

2. This is what it’s all about.

William Sieghart said at one point that someone reading a poem was a ‘cipher’ for what was on the page. Perhaps it’s unfair to run too far with a casual conversational remark, but I think it’s a revealing choice of word. Cipher from the Arabic, meaning empty or zero – so the writer is the only one who works to make meaning, whilst the reader is an empty vessel, passive partner, or receiver of secrets.

But poetry can work differently than this. There’s an often-quoted passage from Coleridge’s Notebooks about a huge flock of starlings flying as a single body, ‘borne along like smoke, mist’. A poem can similarly hold together a multiplicity of voices, opinions, thoughts – and not fall apart. With such open, fluid poems, the power, responsibility and pleasure of constructing meaning is shared between writer and reader.

3. Something that’s indestructible.

Glyn Maxwell’s argument for verse was that it was indestructible. Who wouldn’t want to learn from something that’s indestructible, he asked. But I would rather learn from something that takes off its armour plating and goes out into the world fragile and transient. That moves, to paraphrase Pound, to the rhythms of music, not the rhythms of the metronome.

Poetry is poiesis, and of course it is an artifice. But the form is no less hard-won and the artisan who made it no less skilled if it is organic, if form and content inform each other and are indivisible. To put it another way, free verse is a misnomer.

4. On Pleasure

Whether reading, writing, performing, or listening to poetry, meaning is always becoming, never achieved. There is always movement and tension. There is pleasure but there is never satisfaction, because the moment when pleasure is ‘enough’ (satis) can never be held on to. I take these ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy, but Blake knew it too: ‘Enough! or Too much’.

If there is no satisfaction, pleasure cannot be the pleasure of ownership. Instead, pleasure is the opening of the self to the world. That poetry’s line can crack so, amazes and delights me and keeps me seeking it.

5. Speaking right

Arguments about ‘art for art’s sake’ and the role of poetry reinforce distinctions between subject and object, artist and artwork, art and society. I believe these categories are of limited use. As a poet I am reciprocally constructed as I construct my poems, poems which act with many other meaning-forces in the mutual production of society.

Shirley Dent was right: poets are not legislators, even unacknowledged ones. But if they can’t practise legislation, the bringing of law, they can practise jurisdiction, the speaking of right. Society doesn’t exist except as we make it; we are not atomised selves; the practice of speaking really changes the world as experienced.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

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