What is the value of poetry? How does it make itself felt?

The notes to this post will focus on “found answers” to these questions from literature and from all over the web: answers which are themselves brief and poetic.

From The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl:

“Lowell fell into more laughter at the idea of being inspired by his own poetry, but in truth, he was. Why shouldn’t he be? The proof of poetry was, in Lowell’s mind, that it reduced to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy that floated in all mens’ minds, so as to render it portable and useful, ready to hand.”

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, p. 34

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

Understanding Poetry - comic illustration
Understanding Poetry from Incidental Comics by Grant Snider

The two best lines are “If you return to a poem, it will grow in meaning” and “If you memorize a poem, you will see it everywhere.” Poems work subconsciously and across time, rather than being comprehended at first reading.

Joel Dueck (Author) ·

Is not the real experience of each individual very limited? And, if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is he not in danger of repeating himself, and also of becoming an egotist? Then, too, imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?

—Charlotte Brontë, Letter to G. H. Lewes, 1847.

Rundy ·

Christian Wiman, in My Bright Abyss:

“If that’s what he means,” says the student to the poetry teacher, “why doesn’t he just say it?” “If God is real,” says the parishioner to the preacher, “why doesn’t he simply storm into our lives and convince us?” The questions are vastly different in scale and importance, but their answers are similar. A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight; it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity. A god, if it’s a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive. Thus the uses and necessities of metaphor, which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths. Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, and image, which tease us not out of reality, but deeper and more completely into it.

Joel (Author) ·

I loved this thought from Helen Macdonald during her conversation with Kerri Miller on MPR this morning (this bit starts at 31:00 in the audio):

I tend to write poems very fast, and I tend to not revise them very much. The thing about writing a poem compared to writing a book — I mean obviously, it’s not as long as a book — is that there’s a moment where the poem is finished, and it’s really addictive moment: the poem suddenly snaps shut like a locket and you can’t do any more to it, because it has its own internal workings, like a watch, and it stops letting you do anything to it — it becomes this object on its own, and it’s really exciting when that happens. So I’d write the poem and then start to tinker around with it until it starts to work by itself, and then I just let it go.

This feels exactly right, not only for the few times I’ve written a poem, but for the experience of reading or hearing poetry. When a poem gives that clicking-shut sensation every time you read it, you’ve found a very good one.

Joel (Author) ·