One winter’s day, a friend and I sought shelter in a second-hand bookshop, the sort where middle aged men can be seen spending hours rummaging through volumes of military history, the odd philosophy student (that rarest of species) on the hunt for a cheap paperback of Friedrich Nietzsche, and mature women roaming round the romance section, looking to complete their collection of Danielle Steel.
As for myself, I headed straight for the poetry isle, as would a bee to a daffodil. As I was scanning the multitude of volumes, my literary loving companion remarked, “Does anyone actually read poetry anymore?” It was a good question, and one that got me thinking. How many people today would wish to own a copy of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, or The Everyman’s anthology of Minor Poets of the Eighteenth Century? Certainly I can’t imagine anything by The Countess of Winchelsea to be all that interesting to anyone under the age of a hundred and eighty.
In Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, the celebrated English poet defined poetry as “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Which is essentially a cerebral way of saying that poetry is capable of transforming all things into beauty, and in doing so alter not just how we see ourselves but the natural world around us.
For millennia, poems have been considered as “immortal creations.” So much of the history and wisdom of the ancients have come down to us via epic verse, from The Iliad to Gilgamesh, and of course The King James Bible itself. It could well be argued that had any of these great works been written in wider prose, much of the order and concentrated magnificence contained within these stories would be lost.
Take the following stanza by John Donne from The Anniversarie:
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no-tomorrow hath nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
In relatively few words, Donne has succeeded in illuminating to the reader the concept of mutual love between two people far more succinctly than could any modern day romance spread across an entire novel. But it isn’t just the economy of language which makes poetry so vital; it is, as William Wordsworth put it: “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.”
In other words, poetry can act as a key to unlocking the transformative powers of the creative imagination, being one of the freest and most democratic forms of expression ever invented. And while poetry is no longer written, to quote Edmund Spenser, with the intent “To fashion a gentlemen or noble person in virtuous discipline,” it may still serve to enlighten and stir the mind’s eye of both child and adult alike.
It was T.S. Eliot who once said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Which perhaps says a lot about Eliot, though no doubt many of the finest poets of every age, since there is no such thing as originality in verse (even the Romantics gave up on that idea), to the extent that any bard who may attempt to impart on this world his or her own thoughts, must accept the reality that it has already been expressed, a truth as frustrating now as it was even in the time of Byron through to Pushkin.
Which isn’t to say that poetic expression should be rendered obsolete, since a poem has the ability to place a spotlight on the soul, offering anyone who reads it a unique perspective into someone else’s perception and experience. A poem can illuminate just as easily as it may provide comfort and reassurance during difficult times, whether due to a broken heart, or the loss of a loved one.
But not only that, many of the common phrases we often refer to daily originate from poems themselves. One would be surprised at the sheer quantity. Here are but several (perhaps obvious) examples:
“Bite the dust” (The Iliad); “No man is an island” (John Donne); “Caught Red Handed” (Sir Walter Scott); “Method in his madness” (Shakespeare); “Fools rush in” (Alexander Pope), and that’s a mere tiny tip of the poetic mountain.
Despite the decline in poetry’s popularity since the Second World War, thanks largely to Television and the ever increasing rise of popular media, each of which has brought about a seismic shift in intellectual focus, poetry continues to ritualise our individual lives as well as those in the community we live in, helping us to reflect and hopefully act upon our failings as a society or civilisation, just as it has done for centuries.
However any notion that poetry as a living art form is irrelevant in the modern age would be a false one. For not unlike extremophiles clinging to the corpse of the Titanic, poetry is indeed alive and actually thriving. In various cities across the world, people attend and participate in poetry slams, an event where poets read or recite original compositions in front of an audience or judging panel. Many newspapers and periodicals encourage members of the public to submit their work for publication. One only has to peruse the internet to discover a plethora of poetry competitions and websites devoted specifically to poets both old and new.
Though some of the intellectual aims of the past may have changed, fortunately poetry is most definitely here to stay.