#27: What is Poetry For? Part 2

#27: What is Poetry For? Part 2

And here is What is Poetry For? Part 2, following on from last week’s post.

  1. Story Telling

A poem perhaps above all else tells a story. Most compactly from the Japanese haiku form of three lines and seventeen syllables to the thousand-line lengths of the series known as Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s always a point, a perspective, an opinion contained. Unlike other writers who fictionalise their truthfulness, the poet calls it out and straight. She exposes herself, deeply. For this, he is the brave one. I have many poetry books on my nightstand; I read at night and go to sleep with their views in my head. What sweet, difficult dreams I have.

  1. Poetry in Free Verse, also Uncovering Truths

Here’s a fantastic piece of free verse by the Canadian poet, Eamon Grennan:


I was watching a robin fly after a finch — the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase — when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.


The breath-taking terror or joy when from a small detail you induce a truth. You, just you, the achievement of it and the pride in yourself. Here, the free verse structure, not far removed from prose, adds to the sense of unexpectedness of the sudden, terrible truth. Why does Grennan call it a ‘terrible truth’? Because it takes us so by surprise, makes us cry out, not only from surprise or fear but also perhaps from joy. That Eureka moment of Archimedes! How his heart must have been carried off when he realized that his submerged body had displaced its own weight in water, as he was about to wash his feet, perhaps.


Emily Dickinson memorably wrote:

‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?’

  1. Inspiration, Keeps Hope Alive

David Constantine:

‘Poetry now, every bit as much as in the Romantic age, is a utopian demonstration, by aesthetic means, of what true freedom would be like. It engages us to imagine something better than what at present we are afflicted with; it helps keep hope alive; it incites us to make more radical demands. And poetry does that out of the enjoyment of its own autonomy, which it is duty-bound not to forfeit.’

Internal States Reflecting External Ones, External States Reflecting Internal Ones

There is also something about poetry matching a person’s internal world with his/her perception of the external world. And if that perception matches someone else’s perception. And if not, perhaps we can debate that difference. David Hockney, the artist, had this to say on art (and I think it close to what one might say on poetry): ‘How to explore the outside world in an inner way. It makes the journey more enjoyable’. The imagery of journey has cropped up a great deal in the blog posts I have made.


  1. Existential, In the Moment, Making Sense of a Disrupted World

The Poet as an Existentialist

Existentialism is a philosophy centred on individual existence, life having no in-built meaning, requiring us all to take responsibility for our actions and shape our own destinies. Poetry in this guise can offer an interpretation of a sometimes unreasonable world, and a sharing of experience from one human being to another.


  1. The Power of Language, Rhythm, and Metre

All of this in a compelling rhythm and metre to emphasize meaning or lack of it. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and other stylistic mechanisms. Sometimes no structure, just because it felt right that way, perhaps.


  1. Poetry as a Doorway to the Self


Last word to the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz.


The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.


The ninth stanza of his poem Ars Poetica? could stand alone as a testament, to be carved in stone, such is its insight and value. Our minds are like a series of empty rooms in deserted houses into which intrude ‘invisible guests’, other personae we may not even remember, thoughts beyond our control to inhibit, memories no longer valid but persistent. How can we possibly say then: ‘This is I?’ without the ineffable reminders of poetry.


Ian Widdop


December 2019

2 Responses

  1. Chris Hervey
    | Reply

    I have loved 2019, roll on 2020

  2. Bill Haslam
    | Reply

    Thank you Ian. As always, an interesting and thought provoking take!

    I promised you the titles of some of my favorite poems. Here are two to start with:
    Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray and
    Leisure by William Henry Davies
    If those make sense to you, I can give you a few more when I get my thoughts in order.

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