For every hundred conversations I have about some great new Netflix series, I probably have one about poetry. And yet poetry is something I read, enjoy and think about. It’s sad that there seem to be few readers of poetry. And yet I believe it will always be written and read, because it is necessary.
So here are three reasons (among hundreds) why you can enjoy and embrace poetry.
One: We use poetry when we are trying to communicate the most complex and profound ideas.
There comes a point where literal, prosaic language just doesn’t do the job. If I’m giving someone directions from a Sainsburys local to the Park and Ride, I’ll use the most plain language I can. When I’m explaining to someone how much I love my children or discussing big ideas like life and the universe, I need poetry.
When the Challenger space craft exploded during take off in 1986, President Regan gave a speech in very difficult circumstances. It is said to be one of the ‘great speeches’, and it was written by Peggy Noonan. The whole country, many of them children, had just witnessed a tragedy live on television. President Regan ended his speech with poetry, quoting from the poem High Flight by John Magee. He said the deceased astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” And that touches the heart. It’s better than saying, “There was some faulty tubing, which caused an explosion and some people died, which is sad.” That last sentence is absolutely true. But it’s not fit for the occasion.
This is also why we read poetry at weddings and funerals. We are marking the fact that something big is happening, and nothing does that better than poetry. It’s no surprise that religious texts contain so much poetry. When you’re exploring the meaning of life, the character of God, what it is to be human, for all this you need poetry. You are reaching so far towards profound meaning that everyday language is inadequate.
Two: Poetry is timeless.
Sometimes we watch a film or television programme which has not aged well. Even if the story is good, the production values are so dated that it provokes laughter. Technology has moved on, special effects have improved. Now take a sonnet by Shakespeare or a poem by Christina Rossetti. Contemporary writers are catching up with them, not the other way around. Dante’s Divine Comedy has not been overtaken by someone else’s Divine Comedy.
In his play The History Boys, Alan Bennett wrote:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Whether it’s a poem about the nature of love by Luís de Camões, or a poem about isolation by Stevie Smith, we can suddenly see that someone has already felt what we are feeling, somebody has already walked on this path. Poetry is a shortcut to seeing the depths of human feeling, human folly and everything else on the spectrum of human experience.
Just as 2021 started with new lockdown restrictions, alarming numbers of hospitalizations, and a sense of fatigue as we faced a very dark winter, I stumbled across this poem by John Masefield:
I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.
It was, to more or less use Alan Bennett’s sentiment, as if a hand had reached out to me across time.
Poetry is like a measure of whisky. It is deep meaning distilled into a few words.
When, in his poem The Rolling English Road, Chesterton says we must not allow ‘the folly of our youth to be the shame of age’ he has hit on something important that it would take me a whole paragraph to sum up: when you’re young, bad decisions and behaviour can be put down to the foolishness of youth, but if you’re still making those bad decisions and exhibiting that behaviour when you’re older, it turns from foolish to shameful. And even more, are we talking about a country in its youth and not just a person? In which case there’s further meaning to it.
Why use a paragraph when you can use a line of verse? The literal explanation sounded clumsy, but Chesterton’s poetry lifted it to something eloquent.
To finish, I would encourage everyone – especially keen readers – to find poems and poets they love. I’m as happy as the next person to talk about what great new series I’ve been streaming recently. But secretly I’d rather be talking about poetry.