A Note on Poetry: A Contention, an Ideal, a Credo

Gregory Leadbetter

I suspect that the “defence” of poetry is as old as poetry itself. After all, poetry – if it has any distinct identity as a form – somehow distinguishes itself from other norms of speech and language. In poetry, language behaves and presents differently – and, as another order of language, it implicitly calls upon other orders of attention. This warp or swerve from the familiar might provoke conversation about what happens when language enters these altered states and becomes poetry – and there might emerge the prototypical “defence” or “apology”. In less defensive terms, this produces what Ted Hughes calls the ‘prose precincts’ that poems need if they are to be more widely received into the culture at large (219). Seen this way, a “defence” of poetry is really a vision of poetry: a contention, an ideal, a credo – even a manifesto, of sorts.

Poetry defies comprehensive definition, but to present a defence or a vision of poetry is in some way to define it, provisionally (only ever provisionally), for the purposes of the present argument. I have already begun to do so here. The poetic imagination responds to and directs the self-altering qualities inherent to language – figurative, aural, affective, fictive – to excite the attention by the action of its form. It is characterised by the simultaneity and paradox of its effects: activity and passivity, the voluntary and the involuntary, presence and absence, concinnity and spontaneity, knowing and unknowing, disturbing and soothing, infecting and curing, intensifying and relaxing, summoning and exorcising, wilding and ordering, saying and not saying. Poetry operates at once sensuously and subtly – that is, upon both the physical and the subtle body of our being. It does not just describe or refer to experience: it constitutes experience, and in this sense, as R.P. Blackmur puts it, poetry ‘adds to the stock of available reality’ (349). In poetry, language changes its own nature, and (however imperceptibly) changes the nature that it meets. It speaks to the world-making life of ideas and feelings, moving mind and body at once. In this somatic and psychoactive power, poetry possesses transnatural force.

This metaphysic – which may at first glance sound arcane – is also the secret of poetry’s social and political agency. Poetry speaks not only to what we are, but also to what we have been and might be. It addresses the grounds and powers of our apprehension, and hence the very basis of our participation in the world. True and lasting change depends upon the cultivation of our inner lives – our values, sympathies, and knowledge – even more than our outward: a fool in a presidential palace is still a fool. Poetry is educative – it is earth, rain, air and light for our growth, as a person – and in this sense always possesses a social and political dimension, even if only implicitly and obliquely so. The loudest, or angriest, or most obvious response – however just the cause – is not necessarily the most compelling, lasting, and needful, for the collective good. Sometimes, as Nietzsche writes, ‘It is the stillest words which bring the storm’ (168). Like all genuinely educative arts, poetry possesses an initiatory character: a point of origination that is also a point of relation, renewal, and transformation.

Like poetry itself, a defence or vision of poetry has its context. Something stirs it into voice. It cannot necessarily speak to or for the infinite variety of practice that goes under the name of poetry. Each poet, each critic, can only contribute their distinct contentions, with their distinct psychological, experiential, and intellectual genealogy. This is one of the reasons why genuine diversity and receptivity is so important to cultural life, because no one person can or should bear the impossible burden of pretending otherwise. To be a student of poetry is to participate in a shared endeavour of many hands. A particular defence or vision of poetry may embody a particular taste, appetite, or intuition – but that is also one basis of its potential value.

I follow this principle in what remains of this note, not only to dilate upon what I have already said, but also to highlight nine inter-related aspects of poetry and its possibilities that I feel are especially important, which at the same time, in the present context, might benefit from a few words in their name.

1. Poetry is a fictive, fabulist art. That principle can be obscured when a poem is praised (for example) for its “honesty” or “sincerity” – neither of which, despite their virtue, is enough to make a poem. Poetry does not excuse factual error, nor malicious falsehood, but “facts” alone do not make a poem either. A poem is a storying, a naming, a making. The ‘truth of art’, Marcuse writes, ‘lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality’ (9). When we use the verb ‘to be’, we become ‘Wizards of Is’ (Allott 339) – and poetry thrives on that wizardry. The “real” is itself imaginal – that is, an imagined state or quality – and the imaginal is real: that which we imagine, even if it does not exist in nature, is a truth of our lives. The fictions of poetry are essential to its psychoactive power. Let’s keep sight of this implicate creatrix.

2. I have said that poetry is transnatural: a self-altering changer and maker of nature, a source of new elements, patterns, and realities in the human universe. At its most basic level, this involves a differentiation of some kind, some Promethean spark of an altering, ordering, animating presence. Think of the difference, for example, in archaeology, between finding a stone or a shell worked into a bead – or stones or shells arranged in a circle – and simply finding a stone or a shell. This altering, ordering, animating differentiation is the origin of art – of the aesthetic – which is coeval with ritual, and symbolic action: action, that is, which stands for more than itself, whose form has a multi-planar life. Impatience with these qualities tends towards an anti-aesthetic impatience with art itself – an exclusion of and desensitisation to its reality. This is to shun the very poetry of poetry.

3. Poetry depends upon curiosity, both in the poet and the reader or listener. As a performative art, poetry should attempt to summon and reward that curiosity, but even the best can only do so much. A poem is an invitation, of a kind, to the exercise of curiosity on the part of the reader. The reader cannot – or should not – expect the poem to yield everything it possesses without some active participation on the part of their reading. That participation should be a form of pleasure, and should be rewarded by the poem itself. Wilful obscurantism and jargon are enemies of poetry, but so is the idea that some unfamiliar quality in a poem – in its diction, for example – necessarily “excludes” the reader. A healthy culture encourages curiosity – and curiosity entails an interest in what we don’t already know, or have not already encountered. If a poem merely rehearses settled preconceptions in paraphrasable terms, it may as well not be a poem. Poetry allows for exploration, questioning, essaying, with room for complexity, irresolution, and productive ambiguity rather than reductive certainty. Poetry acts also as a guardian of language, in all its quirks, peculiarities, and possibilities: let’s not purge it of that life, but rather foster the diversity of its ecosystem. As for the poet: to be a poet is to be a perpetual student, responsible for the training (not just the exercise) of their instinct. As Ben Jonson puts it: ‘our Poet must beware, that his Studie bee not only to learne of himself; for, hee that shall affect to doe that, confesseth his ever having a Foole to his master’ (VIII.639). The risk, if we give up on these things – which are in fact their own reward – is that poetry is reduced to a neutral mush, made safe for consumerist attitudes. Curiosity is an intellectual state, but it requires no qualifications: it’s a common property, free as the air – though all too readily neglected or left to atrophy, which only aids the forces of cultural inertia. Poetry is a stimulus to curiosity – and it is a gross disservice to everyone to treat the intellectual or the aesthetic as “elitist”, in poetry or any other sphere. These are our common human inheritance, and a true inclusivity invites, evokes, and rewards curiosity.

4. The operation of language itself is mysterious, and poetry rides that mystery. By “mystery”, I do not mean vagueness: on the contrary, its psychic efficacy depends upon the utmost precision in poetic composition. It is not an excuse to sidestep the demands of clear thinking. Rather, mystery is an achieved condition, which realises a state that cannot otherwise be realised: an activated unknowing that irradiates our knowing, stimulating our epistemic, empathetic, and creative powers – the primal organs of our presence and participation in reality. ‘The wisest of the Ancients’, Blake wrote, ‘considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act’ (702). The operation of mystery is supra-rational, not anti-rational. It does not demand unquestioning affirmation or belief: mystery incorporates doubt and scepticism. At the same time, in the realisation of its mystery, the poem creates a state that exposes the reader to its transformative agency: what Coleridge called ‘Poetic Faith before which our common notions of philosophy give way’ (Lectures I 362). Poetry achieves this mystery partly by bringing language into dynamic relationship with the life beyond language: conjuring and quickening the preverbal rhythms and energies of our being, in verbal forms with supra-verbal effects. A woken mystery is a mark of poetry.

5. As a medium of perceptual, epistemic, and affective wakefulness, poetry is not quite the opposite of hypnosis: it may indeed lull certain elements of consciousness to sleep, though it does so in order to awaken others. (What could we call this counter-hypnosis? Egregnosis, perhaps – likewise from the ancient Greek: egregoros, wakeful.) A poem produces an irruptive pattern: modulating breath, activating the silence as it breaks it – and in this, like music, manipulates time, and creates its moment: at once its duration and its turning force. The orality and auricular form of poetry – sourced in the body – is one of its distinguishing virtues, and cultivates a relationship between sound and sense, the psychic and the somatic, the numinous and the sensuous. In vital ways, its seeing is the work of sound: vibrations that propagate acoustic waves. This is not to diminish the graphic dimension of poetry, since the coming of writing and printing – only to acknowledge the intimate connection between rhythm, vibration, and psychophysiological effect. The Latin word carmen connotes “poem”, “song”, and “spell”: an alignment suggestive of the ecstatic space-time of the poem, the process of poetic fascination that holds you and alters you in its moment, in ways both intellectual and more than intellectual. We are opened, inside its auricular form, to what we might not otherwise be open – and this is one secret of the poem’s power of origination and renewal. “Lyric” poetry is still far too often defined as an effusion of personal emotion – but it is far better conceived by reference to these aural qualities.

6. Considered this way, the lyric converges with the mythic – a category with which, conventionally, it is contrasted. A poem is its own psychic event, and, like a myth, its figure embodies its own irreducible, seminative life: its daemon, the presence of its mystery. Robert Bringhurst writes that ‘myth itself is neither fact nor fiction. Myth is a species of truth that precedes that distinction’ (115), and in this sense, myth fulfils Coleridge’s desire for a ‘medium between Literal and Metaphorical’ (Lay Sermons 30). The imagination is mythopoeic in character, and this both precedes and outlasts religion. The primal form of a poem, perhaps, is a lyric myth.

7. Even the most “personal” poem has a persona. It isn’t often noticed that, as the derivation of the word suggests – from the Latin for a theatrical mask – “persona” also implies an impersonal quality. It is performative, and its performance – however rooted in the self – carries it beyond the self. The impersonal quality of art is what enables it to be personal for others – that is, for it to be taken up into their own psychic life, independently of the biographical conditions of the poet. The impersonal eludes the merely socialised persona, and its superficial habits, to realise something of our pre-social, pre-conceptual life – something wild – that is nevertheless critical to the well-being of human society: the impersonality of the mask brings news from ourselves that otherwise would not have a voice. The impersonal, in this sense, becomes the very condition of that most personal utterance. A poem is a voice, and its voice – like its mystery – is an achieved quality. This is the substance of its art. Poets can disappear into the voice of the poem, no less than novelists into the voice of the novel, and the truth of the poem is not compromised for that: on the contrary, it counters the reductive literalism that might turn a poem into an exercise in narcissism or dogmatism. A poem is also a gift – and the gift of the poem (however personal in effect, intent, or address) assumes this impersonal quality, wherever the poet is serious about making something for someone else, and not just for themselves.

8. Writing in 1880, Matthew Arnold prophesied that ‘most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry’ (300). He does not say why or how it will be so, but in this pregnant remark Arnold discerns an important tectonic shift in cultural history, in which I think he is right to give poetry a prominent – indeed, pioneering – place. Rooted in the body and our participatory powers of apprehension, poetry predates the schism between the “religious” and the “secular”, the sacred and the mundane. The medium of poetry transcends this dichotomy, and hence can assume a role in our spiritual lives for which – in the English language, at least – we have not yet developed an adequate vocabulary. Poetry is imbued with qualities of attention and intent that are the very roots of our arts, sciences, and beliefs. In its psychoactive, transnatural power, poetry is a form of metaphysical inception – at once pre- and post-religious, pre- and post-secular. Poetry is an origin that remains an origin: a point of perpetual genesis.

9. Poetry unsettles through the stealth of pleasure. In the poem’s synthesis of focus and diffusion, things happen.

Works Cited

Allott, Philip. ‘Kant or Won’t: Theory and Moral Responsibility’. The BISA Lecture, December 1995. Review of International Studies, 23:3 (July, 1997) 339-357.

Arnold, Matthew. ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), in The Portable Matthew Arnold. Ed. by L. Trilling. Viking, 1949.

Blackmur, R.P. Form and Value in Modern Poetry . Doubleday, 1952.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. by David V. Erdman, rev. edn. 1982; University of California Press, 2008.

Bringhurst, Robert. A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and their World, 2nd edn. Douglas & McIntyre, 2011.

Coleridge, S.T. Lay Sermons. Ed. by R.J. White. Routledge and Princeton University Press, 1972.

Coleridge, S.T. Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature, 2 vols. Ed. by R.A. Foakes. Routledge and Princeton University Press, 1987.

Hughes, Ted, and Sagar, Keith. Poet and Critic: The Letters of Ted Hughes & Keith Sagar. Ed. by Keith Sagar. The British Library, 2012.

Jonson, Ben. ‘Timber; or, Discoveries’, in Ben Jonson. 11 vols. Ed. by C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson. Oxford University Press, 1925-52.

Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension. Beacon Press, 1978.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-91). Translated by. R. Hollingdale. Penguin, 1961.

Gregory Leadbetter
is Professor of Poetry at Birmingham City University. His books include Maskwork (2020) and The Fetch (2016), both with Nine Arches Press, the pamphlet The Body in the Well (HappenStance Press, 2007), Balanuve (with photographs by Phil Thomson) (Broken Sleep, 2021), and the monograph Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).