What Is Poetry For?
April 5, 2021
Anyone who claims to dislike theory, or to be getting along just fine without it, is simply in the grip of an older theory, whether they know it or not: thus the British economist John Maynard Keynes. So a certain amount of wary eye-narrowing and dubious lip-pursing may, and perhaps should, be a natural response to the title question, predisposed as we usually are against disruptions to the inner status quo. To one reader it sounds simplistic; to another, irredeemably vague; while a third winces at its faulty assumptions. Others may dismiss it as a distraction from what matters, an unimpeded enjoyment of poetry. And there will be some who, muttering we murder to dissect, fend off its threat to their imaginative sensibilities. Taken together, these reservations—every one of which I have myself at some time shared—suggest that ‘theoretical’ tags the matter not just descriptively, as one of rarefied generalization and uncertain provability, but also pejoratively, as having minimal practical value and of interest only to the specializing few. And in fact most of us never feel any need to consider it when we set out to read or write the stuff. As a result I, like most readers, usually end up defaulting to the untidy, sometimes incoherent mass of allegiances and preconceptions that is the residue of my prior encounters, good and bad, with poetry. It will be this that supplies the immediate framework through which we enter, or don’t, whatever work is on offer. An individual poem may be new to us, but poetry will not.
Which is not to suggest that readers, or even poets for that matter, actually need anything like a totalizing theory of poetry, were such a construct even possible; as Georges Braque once said, “The only thing in art that matters is what cannot be explained.” For the lovers of an artform (as opposed to its scholars), the first test of any aesthetic precept should be whether it enhances the experience of a work; if it excludes or deforms or shuts down expression, it’s bad theory, whatever academic interest it claims. But if it smooths the way even a few paces ahead, it has served its purpose. Yeats’s hermetic vaporings about gyres and masks in A Vision, for example, erected a nonsensical edifice that nevertheless enabled him to write “The Second Coming,” the Byzantium poems, and many other masterpieces. In this as in so many things, Yeats is an outlier; most readers neither need nor want such elaborate intellectual structures, fanciful or not, between poetry and ourselves. A few sturdy core values, a handful of working procedures, some luck, much effort, and above all a relish for challenging oneself: when you get down to it, what poetry requires of us is a lot like what many of life’s other enterprises require.
I think the true benefit of ‘theoretical’ questions is the salutary, if disorienting, jolt they administer to intellectual complacency. And the longer one’s governing assumptions have gone untroubled, the sharper the jolt. Troubling them requires unbuckling our dogmatisms, chipping away the barnacles of received opinion, and surrendering defunct certainties like outgrown toys. It’s the exit from Plato’s Cave all over again, except that the bright, blinding light of emancipation may eventually dim to a familiar twilight, as we discover that we have somehow strayed into, or had in fact never left, another, larger cave. In time the prisoner’s transit from gloomy confinement to exhilarating escape may turn out to be not linear but cyclic, ending only with the last enlightenment, death’s. Put another way, it is with theories as it is with computer software: the innovative becomes standard, the standard comes to look dated, and the dated ends up unusable. Our world changes, slowly or quickly. We change, willingly or under protest. It isn’t possible, amid the flux, for our ideas to remain both static and true. If there is always more to learn about what poems can be and do (and there is), some of what we learn must modify some of what we knew, or thought we knew, about this mysterious practice older than writing itself, poetry. So: what is it for?
Bad answers to this question should be easy to spot. What gives them away are their pretensions to sufficing much beyond the present, their ambitions for clinching debates, the pleasure they take in demolishing rival answers. Their phrases clot instead of clarify. They will probably be long and boring and technical as well. It is far otherwise, I think, with good ones. A good answer should take a short time to say, and a lifetime to understand. Its simplicity will belie its profundity, and vice-versa. A startling heft reveals its saturation by long hours over the worktable, while its freshness recalls the sunburst moment of discovery. We should feel as if its insights were whispered to us alone, but also that no one could possibly miss the gong-crash of its truth. In short, it will be a great poet’s answer, itself almost a kind of poem, deserving far more than the shallow assent we tender close-enough descriptions and sorta-kinda explanations. But what is perhaps most palpably good about the good answer is how, like a magnet held under a tray of iron filings, it instantly combs the disordered mass of our observations and intuitions into a delicate rosette, blossoming crisply around itself. And I believe few utterances rival, for this kind of field-projecting potency, Wallace Stevens’s famous description of the poetic imagination as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.” As is often Stevens’s way, this statement is as brilliant as it is compressed and oblique; what follows here is my free, possibly gratuitous, commentary upon this very short text.
Of the two, the first violence is the one poets commit, boldly and with gusto, on language itself. A viable line can hardly be written without first prying words out of the hackneyed sequences where communal habits of thought shuffle them like beads clacking along an abacus; as T.S. Eliot famously said, poets have “to force, to dislocate, language” into meaning if necessary. And it is necessary, perhaps now more than ever, when a corporatized Internet, aspiring to absorb the current totality of human information, steadily works to homogenize all modes of discourse and accelerate their convergence into anonymity and cliché. Only resistance—suave or stiff-necked—to speech’s entropic tide can free the poet to compose poems that will not already sound stale by the time the ‘save’ icon is clicked. This first violence manifests play and protest simultaneously; to commit it, the poet purloins words, images, and rhythms from the billion begrimed palms of quotidian expression, then so arranges them that we wonder to find these worn tokens of our tongue once more surprising, fluid, and fresh.
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
It is a violence that offers, as all the excuse it needs, the transgressive pleasure of words remembering how to dance. Naturally the poem must do more than jailbreak us out of pedestrian conformity, but if it does not at least do that, it is nothing. The experience of reading an achieved poem begins with the clearing of a space where, blinking and bemused, we can encounter ourselves inside a silence shielded round by artful language.
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
It does not matter whether I understand, in fact it is often better if I do not entirely understand, why particular lines should so charm or excite or awe me. The poet’s initial aim is accomplished if readers can now enjoy, as at most other times they cannot, the sheer sensual feast of language, its titillation of ear and tongue and eye, savoring it as both the treat of a moment and a portent of buoyancies to come.
Yet that first violence, if it is to do us lasting good, must succeed in provoking a countervailing energy from within. Otherwise, its audience will have played truant to habituated speech only for the briefest of holidays from the glum anthill of routine. Poetry starts but does not halt in that truancy because, to quote Eliot again, “if you only aim at the poetry in poetry, there is no poetry”. To achieve a more than transient purchase on us, the first violence must plumb the midnight zones where emotion and memory are pent, far beneath the bright upper tiers of awareness. Yet it need not depend on any personal congruences with the reader, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s lines about the sea:
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
The reader’s response is not initially, and never fully, under conscious control, which is of course the whole point. Our stratagems of distancing, from irony to indifference, fail. It is this that enriches a poem, or perhaps a single line or image, even a lone word, with the eldritch power to unleash intensities of mood whose turbulence can seem strange, disproportionate, even unnerving.
The man who is walking turns blankly upon the sand.
He observes how the north is always enlarging the change,
With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.
Poetry as great as this never seeks merely to present or depict emotions, but works instead to elicit them, often to our surprise and sometimes against our will. Susceptible readers begin with the nonchalance of spectators and end in the bridge-burning loyalties of participants. This is why its words are chosen and placed for maximum engagement with the senses: the somatic pull of their rhythms, the subliminal plotlines of their melodies, the instantaneity of the images, all serve to rouse that creative enthusiasm loosely termed the imagination. The reader regains, while the afflatus lasts, an uncomplicated wholeness remembered, perhaps accurately, from childhood.
However, even those who concede poetry’s emotive power do not typically characterize it as one that protects us. And yet it is so. Poems by their very nature as imaginative artifacts offer us a glimpse of the world, our world, otherwise than it is. They are talismans of defiance that, simply by existing, refute consensus reality’s claim to being the only reality. Like the distillate of time imbuing a historical relic, the quantum of imagination radiating from a poem can seem, for the besotted reader, to shake the stubborn solid being of local circumstances. A chunk of clarity composed only of words, the poem by its orderedness exists in such contrast to its slovenly surroundings as to undermine their apparent sovereignty. Readers are free to discover a secure vantage from which to think and feel and remember, to reinhabit our better selves, and to encounter others with a generosity and respect that should always be available, but somehow are not.
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety[. . .]
Of all the vistas of possibility, the most poignant are those that reprieve us from solitude and evoke a community whose members, living or dead, real or fictive, extend us a precious welcome. The strength and dignity I assume when a poem escorts me out of the isolation wrought by an unshareable pain, a freakish dread, a cruel exclusion, has a name: validation. Poetry suggests, in terms whose vividness alone renders them irrefutable, that although our personal and collective distresses may seem ingrained and therefore likely incurable, there is a realm where this is not the case, a realm which may or may coincide with this world. For positive change to be possible, it must first be imaginable. To render it so is the special skill of poetry, the imagination’s mother-tongue.
But whether or not we agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen,” there are surely some struggles where it is nearly powerless, and some attacks it resists in vain. In our time, poetry threatens to falter whenever Authority—governmental, corporate, societal— wields language to inflict a violence on authentic thought and feeling by templating our perceptions and pirating our responses. This is the second of Stevens’s violences, which has only metastasized in the decades since he wrote of it. Already by his time, advances in mass communication technologies were steadily rendering Authority ever bolder in its ambitions to monitor and control. Today, it seems clear that the progression from radio and film through television and computers to the Internet and smartphones has, for all its conveniences, only enhanced the power of received ideas and commodified emotions to estrange us from our imaginations, destabilize our memories, and warp our empathic instincts. Even during its increasingly rare sabbaticals from screens and soundtracks, the mind seethes with the noxious aftereffects of propaganda, advertising, and social media. We ourselves collude, not always unwittingly, with the attention industry’s strip-mining of our consciousness. And then out of the digital torrent comes the voice of the poet, speaking with rare moral authority:
I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.
Sometimes it is only in the shocked and rueful silence created by such questions that the true face of this nation fully emerges, though the hard school of lived experience makes that face more direly familiar to some of us than to others. This second violence, if too long unresisted, can reduce us to a kind of psychic peonage, in which we succumb to speaking, writing, and eventually thinking in the degraded idiom of that which would exploit and oppress us. In this environment, poetry beckons as a refuge, but alas, not one we can inhabit indefinitely. Drawn forth from its analog realm by the practicalities of life, I sometimes feel like a small furtive creature venturing from my burrow, whom mercenary speech at once falls to tracking with predatory impatience. If my inner resources have in the meantime been nourished, I prevail for the moment; but every foray out under the pummeling onslaught of the second violence costs me something. All of which is to say that this violence simultaneously intensifies our need for poetry—as W. C. Williams said, “men die miserably every day for lack of” it—and menaces our capacity to surrender to it.
Still, overexposure to debased language is obviously very far from the worst of what can assail us from without. To consider only the US context, this second violence regularly accompanies and promotes actual physical harm done to living bodies, especially to those denied the privileges accorded the straight, the white, the Christian, the native-born, or the male. Dehumanizing words abet assault, murder, dispossession, mass incarceration, and atrocity. They are vectors of suffering. For many readers, I suspect we may have here reached the limits of what we should expect from poetry; even to suggest otherwise might seem grotesque, given the Niagaral volume of discourse in America being deployed this very moment to propagate hateful stereotypes, police cruel hierarchies, propagandize for a grossly unjust distribution of wealth, and further entrench an economic system that values profit now over planetary collapse tomorrow. Yet here too, it should be said, the inexhaustible generosity of poetry remains available. For one thing, the works of poets like Whitman and Neruda remind us that America was once, and may still be, the sum of its contrasts with the Old World; as June Jordan put it,
New World means non-European; it means new; it means big; it means heterogenous; it means unknown; it means free; it means an end to feudalism, caste, privilege, and the violence of power.
For another, it is a venue for reconciliation across hateful divisions, especially those propagated by Authority for its own malign purposes. And because “the fate of poetry,” as Derek Walcott has written, “is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History,” it stocks the archive, immaterial and therefore indestructible, wherein human truths outlive their authors as well as their deniers.
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered.
Mightily achieved lines like Hayden’s show how poetry remains the sturdiest vessel through which hope is transmitted, both across borders and down through generations. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” wrote the Frederick Douglass here commemorated; and without hope, however tenuous, how would we struggle?
Especially in a time when many of us, as Nathaniel Mackey recently put it, keep “returning to the news, asking, ‘Are we dead yet?’,” poetry offers freedom—not the promise, or the rhetoric, or the image of freedom, but the real-time experience, the vertiginous sensation, of transcending constrictions of place, person, and circumstance. And once to feel truly free is to acquire an impatience, an intolerance even, of oppressions great and small. Acting on that impatience, speaking from that intolerance, has a way of becoming natural and necessary. To know what poetry is for, therefore, is simply to know that the right lines, rightly read, are a mysterious but sure portal to that feeling. It can’t happen every time. It doesn’t last long. But once known, it is not to be forgotten.
 Terry Eagleton, “Preface” to Literary Theory: An Introduction, p. vii
 Alex Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life, p. 166
 “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, p. 36
 “The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Essays, p. 248
 Marianne Moore, “The Fish,” Observations
 W.H. Auden, “On This Island,” Look, Stranger!
 “Introduction” to Marianne Moore, Selected Poems, p. 12
 “At the Fishhouses,” A Cold Spring
 Wallace Stevens, “The Auroras of Autumn” II, The Auroras of Autumn
 Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” VI, Leaves of Grass
 Martín Espada, “How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way,” Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
 William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” Book I, Journey to Love
 June Jordan, “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us,” Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays, p. 248
 “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory,” What the Twilight Says, p. 79
 Robert Hayden, “Frederick Douglass,” A Ballad of Remembrance
 “Song of the Andoumboulou: 235,” Kenyon Review Vol. XLI No. 6, November/December 2019