This is a guest post by Sarah Luczaj. Sarah is an online therapist – who I definitely recommend. She is also a poet who has just had her first book of poems, An Urgent Request published. In this post she reflects on the worth of poetry. This is a post well worth reading over and thinking about, which I’m delighted Sarah has allowed me to publish. So, settle back for a good read and think.
My first chapbook (as the sole author) has just been published, and I feel all the sense of satisfaction and excitement that you might imagine. The other side of those feelings rears its head from time to time though – what have I actually achieved here? Does the world really need another 30 pages or so of poems?
Writing poems could be seen as a pretty pointless activity. It demands a heavy investment of energy and concentration, and the publishing of it is a thankless task, there can be no more than a handful of poets who make a living from writing poetry, rather than from teaching others to do so. Out of the small proportion of people who are interested in poetry at all, most tend to prefer writing their own poetry to reading other people’s.
Is contemporary poetry, in affluent countries, basically an exercise in solitary navel gazing, and paradoxically the centre of a world of mutual adoration peopled by narcissists who think that their slightest observations or feelings are well worth broadcasting in public space? Or is it an exercise in linguistic abstraction that is designed to be completely indecipherable to the average human? Or is a third option closer to the truth – has poetry become a space in which we express ourselves, a holding environment in which everyone’s voice can be heard; are the new support ore recovery groups called creative writing classes, does appreciation of the role writing can undoubtedly play in recovery from every kind of trauma extend to a sense that all the poems written out of trauma and expressing something in a useful way to the writer, are good poems? Is the criteria artistic at all? Doesn’t “artistic criteria” as a phrase immediately strike you as pretentious and elitist?
Enough of the provocative questions – at the end of the day, of course I am quietly convinced that there is a lot of point in writing and reading poetry, and part of that might well be something in the “pointlessness” itself. I am also convinced that there is a kind of quality in a good poem which can be consistently felt, which transcends its other qualities, its therapeutic value, etc.
I would argue that poetry is something which can’t be consumed as passively as you might watch television after work. It demands a kind of engagement. When you read a poem you are inside it, you are listening to your own voice in your head reproducing someone else’s words and the patterns of the words. When you write a poem you have to be in a state of receptive awareness and in full active control as well. The way of thinking and being you use in order to write a poem or to read one is a very different one from habitual ways of thinking and doing – trying to be productive, to fulfil specific demands, to compete, to compare, or to relax, in the sense of switching off. It is anti-habitual. And I think that escaping habitual, goal-driven ways of thinking and doing is valuable for individual happiness and for societies, increasing creativity, activity, empathy and aliveness.
I am idealising poetry a bit here – or rather the acts of reading or writing it – poetry as a verb. Maybe you can unthinkingly consume poetry just as you can consume anything else, and use it just as you can use anything else, to compete, compare, etc.
But to me there seems to be something fresh in the act of the poem which escapes these mindsets, something quietly but inherently subversive, something which says “this is just exactly how it is”. This isn’t to do with the subject matter, but why on earth you chose to say it in exactly that way, and only in that way. A piece of prose can be paraphrased, a poem can’t.
After all, if you could explain it, or say it in any other way, you wouldn’t write a poem.
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