In 2010 I published this post which attempted to define the appeal of poetry for me. I republished it again in early 2015. As it probably reflects my deepest feelings on the subject it seemed only right to give it another airing after the Shelley sequence on reality, art and the artist.
Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.
This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.
Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’
Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.
[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.
He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.
Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.
Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
What exactly are we to make of this?
At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken) as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.
How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.
And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?
Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.
Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace.
The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)
On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.
Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.
Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.
Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.
It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.
George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.
Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.
In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.
We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.
But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.
A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.
One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :
Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.
And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).
I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.
To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.
In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.
This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.
When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.
Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does I have scanned as the layout will be lost if I typed it in. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.
Here he is attempting to capture the turning point in a garden in Baghdad when Bahá’u’lláh had arrived at the moment when He would make fully public the exact nature of His Station and Revelation. You can sense Hayden’s struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.
Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.
So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.