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Issue 230
May/June 2005
Inspired Designs

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THE REFLECTIVE LIFE
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Cover: Termite mound with shape adapted to the very high rainfall of the highland area of Guinea, West Africa. Photograph: Anthony Bann

 

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THE REFLECTIVE LIFE

Staying human by writing poems.

RECENTLY A WELL-KNOWN poet giving a memorial lecture complained that too many people were writing poetry and that it should be "left to the professionals". Leaving aside the odd claim that the poems of professionals and amateurs are easy to distinguish, I wondered how there ever could be too many poets.

In a world where significant meaning is assaulted by the great forces of commerce and entertainment the poem can be a small subversive cell: once you step outside the arena of the literary scene and think about what's happening when people write poems, you may well come to the conclusion that there can't be too many poets. Of course editors and others occupied with the art of poetry and its progress worry about spotting good poems and talent. So they should: it's their perfectly valid domain, though the criteria they work with will always be controversial. But the writing of poetry has a greater significance than the literary scene and its eventual publication. It involves processes essential to being fully human, and the fact that 'too many' people are occupied with that can only be a sign of hope.

We live in a world of commodities; a world in which virtually all experience can be processed, scripted, packaged for promotion and sale: food, health, art, place, the natural world, land, housing, sex, love, parenthood, relationships. The processes of commercialisation reach deep into our inner worlds. In its reach it creates an acceptance of a public reality in which the raw experience of life can be hijacked for a consumer economy.

Writing a poem is a small act of resistance: poets sift through occupied territory to reclaim the raw materials of life and those elements of the mind that reflect on life. They do this to create something that may awaken a similar illumination in others. In doing so they open up a world that's not for sale - a world subversive of the dominant commercial culture. Writing poetry is part of an essentially human attempt to render the world meaningful emotionally, aesthetically and spiritually; to engage the capacity for an imaginative perspective on the world; to re-enchant 'reality' with imagination. That's what people writing poems try to do. They may never succeed completely. The poem may not ever be really finished or published. It's the process that's important.

Poets can, in particular, privilege ideas and states of mind that, in certain epochs, are repressed. In ours images of action, mastery, control and knowledge dominate; those of humility in the face of mystery and reverence are submerged; we're bombarded with the superficial rather than the ineffable; the sense of and need for beauty hardly reach public consciousness in a world which, however spectacular its technological triumphs, is largely without beauty. Most of us live our lives amidst scenes without grace: monotonous mass building, highways, infernos of noise and bad air and vanishing night skies; and with the erosion of that prime source of beauty - the natural world. James Hillman has argued that it's not sex or violence that are repressed in modernity but the fundamental sense of and need for beauty. It's become something to which we're occasional visitors, not a fundamental strand of life, unless we search it out. But it is in writing poems that such states of mind are privileged.

I'd go further to argue that some kinds of subject matter in poetry are more likely to evoke these states of mind than others are. For a long time the assumption has been held that any subject can lay equal claim to poetic treatment. But following this without reserve we can end up with poems that, overlapping with and being infiltrated by the mass world and its spirit, texts and images, have lost their souls. They may have become hostage to current fashion or implicit ideologies. Also the poetry 'scene' is in itself subject to the forces shaping the world around. A quick glance at any discourse to do with the public face of poetry and we can spot the rhetoric of the contemporary world: new, exciting, challenging, break-through, boom, launch, the latest. This is the language of the market. It's dominated by competition as a source of evaluation in a world of extreme confusion about value itself. Poets adapting to a framework that such rhetoric imposes and wanting affirmation in the wider world can easily lose sight of the real objective - that of sustaining a true vision.

Once that objective is lost sight of the difficulty often arises of seeing why a particular text is a poem rather than some other form of writing. People who say they don't understand contemporary poetry often mean they don't know why a poem is a poem. What has made it a poem? From a purely linguistic point of view it's often easy to re-arrange the lines of a poem to look like prose and set them alongside texts which are not intended as poems but which treat seemingly similar themes, and the distinction may well not be obvious. Journalists, copy-writers, entertainers, political analysts are often people with virtuoso linguistic and imagistic skills, and they may utilise the pseudo-poetic in getting their messages across. But poems should be distinguished by the state of mind that inspired them, states of mind that don't inspire other forms of text; and that should be evident in the forms and words used.

IT'S UNFASHIONABLE TO make a claim for a heartland of poetry but perhaps we should. A couple of years ago Jonathan Bate, in his wonderful book The Song of the Earth, suggested that poetry can enjoy a particular niche in the domain of words, that of showing us how to dwell in the world, to re-enchant the places we inhabit. Central to this project is the expression of our connection with the natural world: that is, those elements of it that still survive. Most of us are only visitors to 'nature'. All around, people sorrow helplessly over its destruction for they know, unconsciously for the most part, their relationship with the non-human world is fundamental to their physical, psychic and spiritual wellbeing. Indeed, abundant research has shown that nature in any form has an impact on that wellbeing - the sight of a tree, the sky, weather, some wild patch, even a goldfish in a bowl, help people, sick physically or mentally, to recover. For these elements possess the potential to evoke the poetic states of mind we need to be fully human and so to be healthy.

But even beyond that we can respond imaginatively to the world around us whatever it's like; that is, charge it with significance, with mystery, relate to it with feeling, draw out its soul. It's imagination that's invoked when an ordinary non-professional poet observes some feature of the world around and finds it mirrored in an interior process of feeling and memory. What counts here is attitude and perspective. Whatever the raw material, we can stand back to sense its essential qualities and meanings. In so far as we do that we can emancipate ourselves from forces turning us into passive consumers bound by the realities imposed by the movers and shakers of the consumer world. We can distance ourselves in a mythopoetic stance towards the quotidian. The fact that many people do this in writing poetry can only suggest how much we hang on to our humanity.

So what about our eminent speaker's worry? What about the quality of poetry written? After all, when people write poems they want to create something of great value. However, people have varying amounts of linguistic talent and capacity for intricate thought and image. In fact, poems strike gold quite rarely. Mostly they're 'in progress'. In the arena of 'professional' poetry too, poems of great power mingle with the apparently inconsequential, and anyway we can't know what will become part of our heritage a few centuries hence. We're stuck with the now. The work of editors and promoters plays an essential part in sifting for the future even though the values behind this process are largely ephemeral. And much of what is not chosen and does not reach the larger public arena may well have similar qualities to that which does. Nevertheless, in spite of the marketing gauntlets editors must run, poems at the very heartlands I've described here surface to public attention. They're not impeded by the big presence of poetry that will not achieve fame.

So I return to the state of mind or attitude that reveals essentially a poetic text and makes up the heartland: a sense of mystery in a world of compulsive control and visibility; an attitude of reverence to the realities beyond and between the manifest; the search for and discovery of beauty; a search for the soul in people and things; a sense of the transpersonal and cosmic; above all a sense of imaginative, playful detachment that allows a vision of the world as it is, its energy and brilliance as well as its toxic qualities, and makes of the poet the observer rather than the victim of consumerism. The poet leads the reflective life.

Judy Gahagan runs courses exploring these issues for the Poetry School London. Recent courses have worked on The Soul in Common; A Sense of Place; The Imagery of the Natural World; forthcoming is The Heartlands of Poetry.

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