Essay / 8 October 2021

Defence of Poetry

Cover photo by Marjeta Marinčič

The poems I like to read are valuable to me for three reasons: they offer companionship; they illuminate something true; and they offer forms of imagination that help me think better.

I read poems because they can illuminate an idea in an irreplaceably brief and intense way. When you pick up a text, the author speaks to you seemingly from nowhere and possibly from everywhere. His or her words sound like a crystal-clear echo of a diffuse thought or an indefinable feeling that you find in yourself. As you read, one interpretation comes to mind for you. But as soon as you read the text again, another interpretation comes to join it; you are in a different mood, you’re following a different rhythm, you’re reading more slowly or more quickly, you are struck by another word, another image. This is how the text gains meaning. That poetry can have this compressed, specific and simultaneously incredibly broad content makes it a special genre for me.

Furthermore, in the poems I like to read, there is a connection between poetry and truth. The author succeeds in revealing an elusive thought. With that, a poem creates a kind of magic through which what cannot be said lights up.

Finally, the poetic imagination can help reason to fathom reality. That seems unusual nowadays: you analyse a political situation by looking at facts, investigating concepts, scientific findings. But poetic images also prove enriching in understanding political occurrences.

Inner companionship

A poem that hits you is one you won’t manage to finish; the text is public and deeply personal; it is widely applicable andremarkably specific or individually relevant. You read the poem in a certain context, but the text only gains meaning when you reread it.

A good poem also has an immediate bodily effect. What’s more, this is precisely how you recognise that you are dealing with a poem. In a conversation with the critic Thomas Wentworth, Emily Dickinson describes this reaction precisely: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever 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.”.

If poetry arouses such intense, palpable, immediate reactions; if it is a confidant upon whom one can fall back in order to make space for the almost unspeakable, why then is poetry so difficult for many people? Why then aren’t there more books of poetry in handbags and coat pockets? One of the reasons is that poetry often actually presupposes a form of initiation. This training is simultaneously difficult and indispensable; you have to develop a certain linguistic sensitivity. My preference for a number of poems has grown through repeatedly reading those poems. Also out loud. Without approaching the words rationally. Without worrying about the cubbyholes into which a good review might have to fit – without fussing about style, form, school, tradition. The point is: don’t do anything with the words, allow them to do something to you. At the same time, poetic use of language does indeed require training and practice. One’s own experience, one’s own subjectivity, cannot be the starting point and the end point. Training is indispensable: what does a word mean? Which meaning is given greater weight and why? Is this a metaphor? How does the image relate to what it refers to? You need to learn the meaning of words, sentences, stories.

Poetry and truth

The poetry I like to read illuminates a thought that is confrontational, difficult to grasp or articulate. A poem does not simply contain an opinion. Opinions are considerably overrated. On social media and elsewhere, people air their opinions as if they were a precious asset. In quite a few discussions, the right to freely express one’s opinion is then emphasised. That right is enshrined in the constitution, which is undoubtedly a good thing, but it does not make opinions equal among themselves. Some are substantiated, relevant, imaginative or truthful; others are simply banal or demonstrably wrong. Not all sentences, even if they are emotionally gripping or act on your feelings, are verses. What attracts me is something extra; poetry emerges whenever there is a temptation in the text, a gentle suggestion or a bold call, that causes you to ponder what you yourself don’t want to think. Dickinson put it this way:

Opinion is a flitting thing,

But Truth, outlasts the Sun –

If then we cannot own them both –

Possess the oldest one –

An opinion is not worth much, a search for truth is. Because an opinion flutters and floats on the wind, while truth lasts longer than the sun. If we cannot have both at the same time, then choose the truth.

I believe that poetry can play an important role in determining the truth. Dickinson, for example, links the idea of truth to poetry:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –

Success in circuit lies

Too bright for our firm Delight

The truth’s superb surprise

As lightning to the children eased

With explanation kind

The truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind

It appears to be a simple poem: you have to tell the truth. And ‘all the truth’; this implies both the whole truth and the truth to everyone. But that is best done indirectly, otherwise it is too blinding. The truth comes with the force and speed of lightning, which is softened for children by charming explanations. The consummate, extraordinary surprise of the truth is too fierce for our feeble capacity for delight.

Dickinson’s concept of truth is far removed from the more relative idea that ‘everyone has his own truth’. That is too easy, too comfortable, too gratuitous. It is more interesting to find out how people deal with ideas or insights that are difficult to bear.

Imagination and reason

Some poems express a philosophical thought, but there are also philosophers who use poems to posit their ideas more sharply. Niccolo Machiavelli is known as a cynical thinker about power, for whom the end justifies the means, but he also has a bond to poetry which is rarely mentioned. He writes poems at crucial moments in his life, for example, when he ends up in prison and is tortured. Once again at large, Machiavelli works on a satirical poem called Asino in eight parts; he writes ‘capitoli’ and rather bawdy carnival songs. Poetry is part of everyday life for the Florentine. When he describes his experiences of the day in an extraordinary letter, he mentions poets such as Petrarch, Dante, Bocaccio and Ovid. He knows the tradition and sees himself in that tradition.

For Machiavelli, the poetic imagination is enlightening in many ways. For example, he tries to describe the distinct way in which politics perceives time. Nowadays it may seem that politicians have to think and act at breakneck speed because of social media or other technological factors. And it seems as if time itself is objectively, measurably arranged. Since industrialisation, that objectively measurable time has crept into every aspect of life: you have to work a certain number of hours, you get a number of days off, you go to school for a number of years. As if every day in your experience has the same equal moments, because every day has the same number of minutes.

Machiavelli wants to clarify the political perception of the times. And he illustrated this with the example of the elusive woman, ‘Occasio’, Opportunity. The Florentine devotes a poem to it. In it, he repeats the classic image of a rotating wheel: Occasio is a woman who is difficult to recognise. She wears her wavy hair in front of her face. And she rushes past you; she jumps from one wheel to the other. You have less than no time in which to catch her. Otherwise you will be left full of remorse. But because she often keeps her face hidden, you sometimes notice too late that she has passed by.

This is how you experience the changing world, according to Machiavelli. You stand there and look at it. If you want impact, you need a different attitude. You have to observe changes, and go along with the movements of the times. But that is incredibly difficult because you tend to look at the present from the perspective of your experiences (and thus from the past). You don’t perceive the new, let alone being able to respond to it. What’s more, every action is a leap into the unknown. That is frightening, but you have to jump. That is what the poem ‘Occasio’ asks of the reader: act and seize the moment.

The practised, talented politician knows how to dexterously make use of the moment. Just as the painter must learn to work with paint, the politician must learn to work with time. He must incessantly adapt and respond to sudden, unexpected and brutal changes. For the politician, the question is when is the time ripe for an idea? As a politician, once you know that the time for an idea has arrived, you have to dramatise it in the right way, you have to make your vision come alive by connecting with the imagination. In short, what it comes down to is that when you see Occasio running by, you have to be alert enough to rush along for a while.

Occasio is an example of the powerful images that Machiavelli uses to think politically. As in poetry, the images are clear, concrete, but nonetheless general enough to be widely applicable. Recent elections, a pandemic or a parliamentary debate on a thorny issue: when you bring his poetic imagination to mind, events take on another dimension.

Written for Poëziecentrum Belgium, Versopolis 2021.