On National Poetry Day former RA Resident Poet Pele Cox, writes for Glint Perspectives on why it is poetry, not Twitter, that guards the most valuable treasures of the human experience
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought can make thousands,
If not millions think.
Lord Byron (Don Juan)
Can poetry have any real meaning in the modern world? Can the utterance of a poet have any more relevance than the extraordinary impact of social media? Twitter is, after all, quicker, easier, and can deliver its spray of outrage in a few characters, in the moment and on the instant. Why draw it all out then, why make a meal of it, when we can convey much more easily the way we feel in fewer signs?
This is the power of this new digital language: its ease of access and universality. Anyone might urge poets to agree. Twitter seemingly beats like the heart, but it also flutters. It is fast moving, indiscriminate, disposable, supposedly democratic.
But poetry has nothing to do with this dissipation at all, it is something else completely, an inhalation, a sharp intake of the breath of thought. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, a good poem will blow the back of your head off.
Perhaps true value always derives from its perceived scarcity or difficulty. Something is valuable when it is difficult to do, difficult to bring about, difficult to find – like prospecting gold or painting an icon. Poetry is rarefied, a putting together of words like notes in a musical score. Of course, words in themselves are not rare. Poetry is not unlike an investment portfolio, in its emotional balance of risk against return.
Poetry, like any other art form, is about shaping the medium as much as the message. The very best artists are able to show not just the ambitions but also the limitations of their art – they make you sympathise with the difficulty of rendering thought. Da Vinci famously complained at being unable to bring his ideas to life on mere paper; Picasso, that he spent his whole life trying to draw like a child.
The applications we use (like commodities) on phones, be they social media or cameras, can never plumb and expose the depths of feeling because struggle is absent; there is no secret architecture of creativity and its unseen workforce. Likewise, if a great painting were just an assemblage of well-chosen marks one would say the same thing about a poem. Look at the ‘brushstrokes’ here in Lullaby by W. H. Auden:
Lay your sleeping head, my love
Human on my faithless arm.
The poet wrote these two lines to his gay lover in 1937, at a time when such a public outpouring was taboo. They are a prime example of a poet taking risks. Yet the lines have seduced us too and demand more territory: we want him to go on, to proceed. He knows these words need the next lines to build a private and public domain that can coexist without the impact of his experience dissolving. Only a poem, not a tweet, can open the gates to the interior castle. Only a poem can preserve and sustain the moment of intimacy and power on the page for decades to come – read it once and you want to read it again and again. Such a poem is timeless and, arguably, knows it. Auden follows his opening couplet,
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral…
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
So, we reach this point with poetry because it is a ‘practice’: like all great artforms, poetry is a state of mind, a way of life, and it takes time. Like a beautifully constructed building or tailored suit a poem has to be well-built or properly cut to be lived in and dwelled upon. It is metre and rhythm that give voice to poetry, it is the spaces between the words that give it music.
Social media takes no care over form. The words tumble into the box, which decides for us. Poetry is mined for. Our faith in poetry is underpinned by the meaning given to the words, and the lines are the joists of each storey, which contains its stanzas of reflection.
Good poets are not only architects. Like butchers they fillet the meat of the world, like surgeons they transplant its moments.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets…
T.S. Eliot (The Lovesong of Alfred J Prufrock)
Eight years as a clerk in the sub-sub-basement at Lloyds Bank led Eliot to mourn, in his commuter drudgery: “Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” But he didn’t throw himself from the bridge, he took the train to Margate and wrote the 432 lines of The Waste Land.
The great modernist was a banker, and poetry saved him. In a private act of self-salvation, he created a poetic form for the modern consciousness. Yet, it was also because he was a banker that he understood the true value of poetry, its private riches, which images to withdraw from the coffers, and which to convert to the currency of writing. Eliot also understood the responsibilities of the poet:
“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” T.S. Eliot.
Emily Dickinson, who spent most of her life writing poems in her bedroom and was hailed as a genius only after her death, was the mistress of her own perfectly pitched constructions. She was the perfect example of how the poet dictates the form: “my life had stood – a loaded gun – in corners – til a day” (My Life had stood a Loaded Gun). Twitter, on the other hand is the form that dictates to us. This is an important distinction and says something about language, thought, and freedom. The poet can only be autonomous, moving in the capacity of the uninterrupted, liberated, individual.
This is poetry’s real value. I can see, like gold, poetry is not a promissory note. It makes actual the domain, dear reader or writer, of a human being alone in a room communing with the thought-forms of their own making. Unlike ‘group-think’ or the ‘collective of social media’ – poetry is the lifeform we must nurture to outlast us: it must be enduringly radical and disturb the universe. These constructions of self and language are the part of us that corporations, governments, and computers cannot reach. And because poetry does not come easily and requires struggle and sacrifice, it creates a healthy distance, setting the poet and reader apart from society at large, and lending them the progressive freedoms of private interpretation. Poetry moves at the greatest speed along the most scenic route.
And did you know, the minute a corporation starts to coin ‘democracy’ as its own word, a poet somewhere is making it mean something else, something new again?
Pele Cox is a poet, previously in Residence at the Royal Academy of Arts and TATE and most recently the British School in Rome.
Image top: Sunrise over Norham Castle JMW Turner