“Poetry,” wrote a jaded WH Auden, “Makes nothing happen.” The creative energy that had bloomed amid the ashes of the First World War had been snuffed out by the horrors of totalitarianism. Right-wing poets had seen their hopes for modernized tradition appropriated and discredited by Nazi Germany, while left-wing poets had dabbled in fashionable communism and watched Stalin execute half of their Eastern peers.
Never again would poets have the ambition, or the status, of their pioneering predecessors. Now, poetry is more written than read; encountered largely through presidential inaugurations or the poet laureate’s occasional inelegant reactions to recent events. According to recent data, reported Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post:
…poetry is less popular than jazz. It’s less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera…
This is a shame. Everyone should read some poetry. If you are literate enough to read this article, and not so literate as to read lots of poems already, I encourage you to add more poetry to your life.
I should add more to my own. I read too little. It is easier to skim through lifeless articles with attention-seeking headlines. Poetry, praise God, does not make for effective clickbait. (Can you imagine it? “This Poet Thought That April Was the Cruellest Month. You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next!”)
Many feel that poets have become too difficult. There is some justice in that. Some have been obscurantist and, worse, obscurantist as a means of concealing their essential vacuity. The radical modernism of Eliot and Pound unleashed a riot of symbolism, slang and psychobabble. More than seventy years ago, Australian satirists posing as “Ern Malley” sent nonsensical ramblings to the magazine Angry Penguins and, presaging the Sokal Hoax by decades, had them published to acclaim. Here is an extract from their “Palinode”:
There are ribald interventions
Like spurious seals upon
A Chinese landscape-roll
Or tangents to the rainbow.
We have known these declensions,
Have winked when Hyperion
Was transmuted to a troll.
We dubbed it a sideshow.
Some now insist these poems are surrealist masterpieces, which, if true, would be entirely accidental.
Still, poets should be difficult. Great poems demand attention and contemplation, as they are beautiful, not merely pretty, and enlightening, not merely informative. In an age where information swirls around us furiously we should challenge our time preferences with art that endures. Shakespeare requires more time and effort than the average blog but a Sunday roast requires more time and effort than a sandwich and few of us would deny that this is worth accepting.
From Darwin to Crick and Watson, scientists have, to some extent, replaced poets as authorities on the human predicament: explaining the material circumstances of existence where poets have been speculative and impressionistic. The scientist and writer CP Snow diagnosed a conflict between “Two Cultures” — science and the humanities — that still exists today.
But here at least there is no conflict. Imagine a maestro playing a violin. One could reduce their composition to its notes, and their instrument to its parts, but that would not explain how it feels to experience, and, indeed, why and how one should experience it. Similarly, explaining the material circumstances of existence does not explain how it feels to live, and why and how one should live. Poetry can be a guide, if not a judge, with such questions.
Poems connect us with our past, as through their verses echo rituals, languages and experiences. Poems connect us with our future, exploring the implications of recent trends. Poems connect us with the permanent things: love (seen in a man and woman’s effigies in Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”); questioning (the “exploration” in Eliot’s “Little Gidding”); death (the dark, deep trees in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”).
Poems clarify and enrich our perceptions; giving voice to incoherent thoughts or feelings we have had. Reading Larkin’s “Church Going,” for example, with its reflections on a “serious house on serious earth,” I understood my own inarticulate agnosticism. Other poets introduce us to alien experiences and, with powers of evocation, help us to understand them. In our conflicted and atomized age it is valuable to appreciate other perspectives.
Above all, poetry is beautiful. It is beautiful as music, with rhythms and melodies of nouns, and adjectives, and verbs; full of chiming, interlocking consonants and vowels. Poems should be read aloud, so this can be valued. Take this from Frost’s “To Earthward”:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air.
Take this, from Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death”:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
Poems are also beautiful in the truth of their observations. I think of Jeffers’ hurt hawk, whose wing “trails like a banner in defeat”; I think of Dickinson seeing hope as “the thing with feathers” which “perches in the soul”; I think of Eliot’s evening sky, “like a patient etherized upon a table.”
I should read more poems. Perhaps you should as well.