Warblers and World-smiths: Notes Towards a Defence of Poetry

Daniel Gustafsson

This much the poet knows: word and world are one.

Though they may be hesitant to say as much if caught off-guard behind the counter or desk of their day-jobs, poets are key-workers at the coalface of meaning-making. To defend poetry is to defend an ancient vocation: a vocation that reveals to us what it means to be human. Indeed, to defend poetry today is to defend the human against the prevailing reductionisms of our time.     

We humans are, as even the philosophers will attest, linguistic beings. Language, both medium and matter of their art, is as intimate to the poets as the breath and pulse by which they modulate it. We are also, aboriginally and irrefutably, creative beings. In the crosshairs of these twin strands of our nature, poetry is the quintessentially human activity and the native tongue of any people. In the care of the poets, language is a treasure trove of inherited inklings and apprehensions, symbols and stories, by which collectively we grasp something of our irreducible condition. We forget at our peril how indissoluble poetry is from the foundations and fountainheads of human culture. Without it we are incalculably diminished as a species.    

Poetry legitimizes, even as it transcends, the unspoken assumption underpinning the natural sciences: that there is a more than arbitrary fit between the human mind and the supposedly mindless world. Poets can show the world to be, not merely intelligible, but articulate. In its rule-following aspects, in its handling of signs and symbols, and in its ecstatic pursuit of immanent manifestations of transcendent goods, poetry also makes sense of the religious life even as it may seem to offer an alternative to it. Both bodily and immaterial, language is the surest sign of our own composite nature, and of our participation in a sacramental reality where the visible is always leavened with invisible significance.      

Poetry can inoculate us against the pathologies of scientism: against the temptation, even within the arts and humanities, to describe the world as though there were no human persons in it. Poets know how destructive such trends and tendencies are of the shared values that constitute our home as cultural and spiritual beings. They know, too, that their own medium is capable of revealing those inviolate intangibles that the creeping hegemony of the empirical sciences threatens to obscure and explain away.     

By appealing indivisibly to reason and emotion, memory and imagination – through metre, rhyme and metaphor; through the mutual transfigurations of form and content, medium and matter, subject and object – poetry can re-integrate the person and return us to a wholeness of apprehension and experience.  

Of course, the poem should need no defence. The value of poetry should be self-evident. We know it when we see it. The problem is that we see it all too seldom. To truly defend poetry, therefore, we need to make more poems worthy of being defended.    

To do so may require the rediscovery of the first principles and perennial achievements of the craft: the forms and metres, myths and metaphors, by which meaning is made and maintained. It is possible to depart from these to certain degrees while still retaining a family resemblance to the prototypes and archetypes of the art. But as too many time-tested practices are abandoned – whether lazily or cynically, in knowledge or through ignorance – the claims of our works to being poetry will become increasingly tenuous. The further they get from the measured and magical, the orphic and oracular, the weaker their claims will be on the human tongue, the human ear, and the human imagination.   

For this reason, contemporary poetry needs defending from itself: from its own mutations and metastases. It needs defending from the sloppy and slapdash, the solipsistic and sycophantic; and it needs defending from the insidious instrumentalism of impact and relevance. Above all, it needs defending from the baffling and sinister acceptance – even among the supposed guardians of the word-hoard – of ideological tropes and tactics designed to undermine the very art we pretend to love.  

The poets are answerable, not to the Academy or the Twittersphere, but to the poetic Tradition and the poetic Imagination itself. Poets should have nothing to do with any ism that seeks to reduce the wonder of the world or traduce our potential to articulate it. The task of the poets is to bring out the best in the materials bequeathed to them, and so to enrich and re-enchant the world.  

Arguably, poets today need to re-verse the tradition: embracing some of the insights of modernism while returning poetry to its roots as an aural, metrical and essentially sacred art. In a time of forgetfulness and repudiation, poets work to revive the wisdom of the ages. By revisiting the roots of their craft, poets may also discover those spiritual or metaphysical traditions with which their own is intertwined.      

Re-versification will help poets reclaim the joy and power of their calling. They will come to know that the medium itself is a body of knowledge. They will realise that metre and meaning are not imposed by fiat or blueprint from above, but discovered in the very fabric of shared language and handed down in a live tradition. They will realise that forms of constraint are forms of freedom, that discipline is something of a prerequisite of serendipity, and that any meaningful utterance is less a case of self-expression than of self-annihilation. Indeed, they will find that their poems often know more than they do.    

To defend poetry is to defend the hope that the well-made artefact can be an icon and microcosm of the order and gratuity of creation. Poets are makers, but they do not simply make things up: they receive, respond, reveal. At the confluence of graft and grace, poets are participants in the liturgy of the Imagination: celebrants at the mystical union of word and world.    

Daniel Gustafsson
has published volumes of poetry in both English and Swedish, most recently Fordings (Marble Poetry, 2020). New poems appear in The Brazen Head, The North American Anglican, and Trinity House Review. Daniel has a PhD in Philosophy from The University of York. He lives in York.