What is poetry for?

There are many, many answers to this. Bryan Appleyard, in a recent Sunday Times article (Culture section, 24.07.16), argues that we need poetry, that it fulfils a human need – as comforter, as a way of expressing emotions we do not have the words for ourselves, for its ‘healing power [which] can almost be medicalised’. So why, he asks, do we not buy more of it? Why did we not see a national outpouring of grief on the death of Geoffrey Hill recently? There are, he concludes, too many other distractions. Tennyson didn’t have to contend with TV and the internet to gain readers. However, Appleyard is hopeful that we are seeing a boom (or perhaps a ‘boomlet’) in poetry – after all, he says, it’s our national art, one of Britain’s greatest exports. Poetry magazines, festivals and books are seeing a resurgence – not a big enough one yet, but a definite upturn in the fortunes of poetry and poets. He concludes that poetry is ‘the art most close to hand and heart’ and so we turn to it at ‘intense moments’ because, ultimately, it is composed of a medium we all easily understand (words) and because our society is saturated with it, however incidental that might seem: phrases of it appear in everyday conversation; momentous occasions such as weddings and funerals rarely conclude without at least one poem; and of course we learn it at school, even if reluctantly, so its rhythms and structures are burned into our subconscious.Poetry, ultimately, gets to the heart of the matter when nothing else can.

Woman Reading
‘Woman Reading’ (Tavik Frantisek Simon)

Helen Ivory and George Szirtes write in the introduction to their excellent book In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, that poetry is more than words, although ‘language transforms and distils the world’, it’s about the tangible and the intangible, about what it just beyond our reach:

Everyone has experienced the sense of poetry before it is language. It may be a particular form of encounter with beauty, when we don’t even know what beauty is; it may be a form of recognition of the ordinary-as-strange; it may be the movement of a hand, the way light falls on a chair, the way a ball is struck in a game, or indeed any series of movements that ties the arbitrary together so it seems as though it has always been there.


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