Why write poetry?

A quick self justification.


7/17/20194 min read

Yeah poems. Strange little things.

Sometimes a bit too obvious, sometimes oblique and evocative, sometimes just a scramble of words that doesn’t seem to point to anything. There’s no money to be made in it, it can be horrendously self indulgent, way more so than Drama say, so why do I keep coming back to it?

Personal reasons first.

It’s a great workout, it’s the pure form of writing, it’s art by design. There are no constraints, I can be as oblique or pointed as I like. There are forms, of course, but if you want you can bin them. Forms just give you railway lines to start off with, a working rhythm.

And poetry still has that feel of adolescent fervour about it. If you condense something into a poem it has an intensity that stands against the mannered and mature world of the adult. All artists have this of course, but in the world of words the poet is perhaps the most untamed of the writers.

Am I a poet?

I have precisely one poem published. It’s in a book of Bill Manhire’s favourite poems from his writing course at Victoria University which I did as an upstart 17 year old way back in 1986 and pretty much aced (as much as you can with poetry). Everyone had high hopes for me, but I went and did a whole bunch of acting, wrote some plays, went off the rails a bit, became approximately sane again, moved to London and now I am 50.

Which is not to say I stopped writing poems. I never stopped writing poems. Most are buried in notebooks that make a stack about five foot high. I would guess they number in the many hundreds.

So I guess I am a poet. One poem published makes me a kind of bad poet but then I have never seriously tried to get anything published. No, once I tried, when I was 18 or so and got turned down once and never tried again. I was a fragile thing (still am) and that one rejection and subsequent confidence drop killed it for me for, well, over thirty years.

And I am not a poet because being a poet means being read by other people.

I mean really, grow up!

So I am a poet and I am not a poet. I would say now my writing is better and more confident. My last sequence about the death of my not-wife’s father and the experience of going back to NZ is good. It’s not just about me, it extends into the world, it has the art and it has the feeling and observation and engagement. It’s a mature piece of work and it pretty much wrote itself. That’s the other thing, writing poetry is pure joy for me. Rewriting, not so much.

I might even try to have this poem published somewhere, perhaps I am tough enough now to take the rejections needed to get to publication in a journal. And of course the internet.

Why is poetry really important now?

Poetry, like Drama, is always important. The Waste Land, Howl, I sing the body electric, poetry is always about now and expressing it, altering it, softening it up. But our particular now, the now of collapsing authority, of the dissolving of trust, growing tribalism and specially the collapsing environment, has an urgency about it.

What’s clear is that the enlightenment failed us. Or, more accurately, that the enlightenment and the fetish of scientific rationalism have led us to a very dark place indeed. The separation of mind and body – while meant to liberate us from the shackles of being tied to religion and dogma – has over corrected to the point where aliveness has been eradicated from our lives. For most of us success is not measured in the quality of our experiences and relationships and connectedness, it’s really just about money and status and me me me.

I could rant at this point, but let’s just ask the question: If we have become so disconnected from life, from aliveness, and ended up in this collective mess, how do we resist the dual temptations of utopia and dystopia (techo-escapism and collapse theory) and start to claw back our connection with all that is around us? How do we make out lives rich again?

It’s those very qualities that create connection that have been under attack for such a long time now – empathy, generosity, cultivation of care, a broad and inclusive understanding of what life is: How we are connected to the chicken that lays the egg, the server farm that keeps this internet alive, the migrants, the strange guy down the road, the weeds in the garden?

The mechanism of this connection is metaphor. It’s poetic. We make the connection by triggering our empathetic systems through language and voice, by bringing the things that might not be together, together. In doing so we create links and emotional reactions and deepenings to things and processes that do not at first appear to be connected, but are.

I wandered lonely as a cloud.

Even very simple and cliched constructions work. I am looking out the window as I write this and wind is brushing the trees. This brings me combing my hair, the wind and tree into relationship – so simple, but now there is something of me in that tree, I look at it more closely, perhaps care for it a little better.

Perhaps this seems obvious, and there is a lot more to poetry than that, as a writing experience and as a thing to read or hear, but that basic job, of revitalising connection, of bringing things back to life that we have so ruthlessly killed with empiricism, is now essential if we hope to come to terms with the conditions of life that we have created for ourselves.

I have singled out metaphor here, but actually it’s just the play of language that can do this, even the ‘not writing’ of found and generated poems, of bots, that can do this too.

Perhaps I am writing this to convince myself that it’s worth the risk to my self confidence of trying to get things published and have people read them, because unread poetry is a bit of a waste. Writing helps me, and perhaps that is all it needs to do, to keep me open to the world. That’s the basic reason I guess.

But maybe, just maybe, it can help a little with this thing we must do now, this rekindling of aliveness we must start, for surely the era where worth is measured in things and status is coming to an end just as surely as the expectation that things will get materially better also dies; we need to define and create a new kind of better, and writing and reading poetry is one way to do that.