#26: What is Poetry For? Part 1

#26: What is Poetry For? Part 1

This is post #26, Part 1 of a two-part series entitled What is Poetry For? Post #27 follows next week. I celebrate a half-year of weekly blog posts by stepping back to consider the purpose and application of poetry. I will quote statements of the poets themselves (and an artist!) and uncover some poems to confirm or cast perspective on their insights.

The image at the head of this post is of a cold, barren landscape, perhaps the Lake District, or a glen in Scotland. It summons for me the stark, natural beauty of poetry. The road is there, the trees, lake, clouds and hills. People are NOT there, except that, like you, they are thinking about the image. The view is in West Yorkshire, the Pennine Hills, above where Ted Hughes lived and wrote his poems.

  1. A Process to Express Lived Experience

First voice to one of the truly visionary poets, T.S Eliot.

It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences…a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation…’

Of all the people I have read, Eliot is the one I would most like to have conversed with. This quote captures the intensely hard work of distilling experience into poetry. His poetry is potent, like pressed oil from palm nut kernels.

  1. Praise , drawn from Imaginative Awe

And not far behind Eliot in stature, WH Auden in his lecture Making, Knowing and Judging (1956):

‘Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening’.


Here follow the last six stanzas of one of Auden’s most famous poems, In Memory of WB Yeats (1939):

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.


Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

These last three stanzas are some of the most startling I have ever read. In an exceedingly passionate vein, a manual for writing poetry – ‘Poet, into the darkest recess, go! Poet, still help us to rejoice! Poet, turn a phrase to transform a curse into wine! Poet, sing of failure, in a passion of distress! Poet help us to heal! Poet, give praise!’ Clear as crystal, the mandate of the poet, and especially haunting given that these verses were written in the shadow of what was clearly on the horizon – the rise of fascism, and the liberal world’s requirement to extirpate it. WB Yeats died in January 1939, and Auden wrote this a little later. The role of the poet during WW2 is an essay to itself.


No surprise then at the last stanza’s last word. Auden’s pinnacle aspiration for his lifetime’s work.


3.   Poetry as an Other Voice, Visionary, Uncovering Truths

DH Lawrence had this to say about poetry in ‘Chaos in Poetry’:

Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun.’

Lawrence to his core, this. The poet as the enemy of convention who has the courage to reveal the wild chaos, the reality we humans almost deliberately cower from.


More next week, my final blog for 2019.


Ian Widdop


October 2019

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