Guardians of the written word – Glass talks to literary critic Erica Wagner about the world’s most beloved form of literary art – poetry

Guardians of the written word – Glass talks to literary critic Erica Wagner about the world’s most beloved form of literary art – poetry

Erica Wagner, Literary Editor for The Times, reflects on the world’s most beloved form of literary art and explains why poetry is as fundamental to life as breathing

“Poets deal with epiphanies and moments of recognition — the heightened moments in our lives when we’ve had to suffer trauma or grief or intense love. Poets can find ways to say the unsayable; to find words where there could be silence,”
 Jackie Kay
“To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against.”– Seamus Heaney
“If the words and their meanings don’t reach the reader or the listener, then the poem is doing nothing. That doesn’t prove it’s useless; it might just be waiting for readers to come around.”
– Robert Bringhurst
“Poetry doesn’t answer questions but it does provoke them. Its promise is that it can hold contradictions, set us out on the big enquiries (which may have no answer), hold us in a positive, even celebratory, spirit of uncertainty.” – Jo Shapcott
“Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.” -Doris Lessing
“I think that any attempt to narrowly define poetry runs the risk of oversimplification. I would say that poetry can function as an emotional barometer in the world.” –    Bernardine Evaristo MBE
“I think human beings have a natural affinity to rhythm, to music, to language that wants to be heard again. Look at small babies and toddlers as they grow – they love chanting, playing about with words. It’s a natural birth right for most human beings – making a sound, shaping a sound, the discovery of words, the shaping of words.” – Michael Horovitz
“Poets teach us how to connect our grand visions of the world to the decisions we make on a daily basis.” 
– Daljit Nagra

Guardians of the Written Word £

Wrought with the most evocative of language and abundant in emotion and meaning, poetry has unified the human experience for centuries. Action and thought, imagination and reality, contemplation and impulse – poets and their audience are indubitably bound together, by words that echo through eternity.

But how does poetry relate to contemporary thinking? Is it still as cherished in the modern world as it has been throughout the ages? And if so, who are the most important poets today, entrusted with keeping the artistry alive?

What is it that makes a good poem?
Perhaps as with any art form, what makes a good painting? What makes a good photograph? There aren’t any rules, certainly you can’t say it has to rhyme; it has to be an iambic pentameter. I don’t think it ever worked that way. At times I think it can be quite mysterious in the way that they work because, more often than not, they’re not narratives. So you don’t have the ease of saying ‘well I like this’ as you can with a novel because you know it’s got a cracking good story. One thing that makes a good poem is a distinctive voice; again, this is applicable to any art form: great artists have voices, whether they use words or paint or stone or any other medium. A good poem is something that’s complex, that has depth and that tries to get to the truth. What that truth is depends on the poet or the poem, but a good poem rings clear like a bell. It achieves its own ends and has a sense of completeness about it.

It’s something that’s quite intangible.
Yes, it is intangible. And it’s also personal, as with any art form; not all poetry will work for all people. There’s no rule to say you have to love Shakespeare’s sonnets. We take these things in and they speak to us. I love poetry and I write poetry myself, I don’t review poetry. I review fiction and non-fiction but as a critic I’m not of a school that believes that you can do criticism as a sort of mathematical proof. I always think if I like something I’m possibly good at explaining why I like it but that doesn’t mean that you have to like it too.

What do you think it is about poetry that has enabled it to endure the millennia and still be relevant today?
Why poetry survives, I think, is like asking why breathing survives. I think it’s part of what makes us human; the desire to tell stories is ingrained in our DNA. I do actually think that art is a survival mechanism because it enables us to imagine things that we can’t see, and given that we don’t have tough hides or sharp teeth or any of the things that enable other animals to survive, being able to think around the next corner is the main thing that we can do.

That’s one of the things that poetry does. I think great poetry survives and we still read T S Eliot, The Odyssey or Gilgamesh because the stories that they tell are just as true now as they were when they were written. The dilemmas that the characters in them face and the language that they’re expressed in is just as applicable in many ways to our situation now. It is poetry’s apparent remoteness from fact, from day to day reality. If we read history books from the 19th or 18th century, very few of them stand the test of time. Poetry works in a different way; it’s looking towards the bigger picture, and so I think, therefore, survives better.

I think also, it addresses the fundamental human feelings, which have never changed throughout the ages.
Absolutely! Love, death, adultery, birth, war, it all still goes on.

Does poetry have a place in modern society? Has its popularity waned at all?
I certainly don’t think poetry’s popularity has waned at all. Compiling the names of poets to include in this article was an impossible task which could, of course, have gone on and on. I realised that list of names didn’t include people like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan or Morrissey; I think that’s poetry too. I listen to a song like ‘Graceland’ and the lyrics stay with me the way a great poem does; of course the music is part of it but all poetry has some kind of music attached whether it’s explicit or implicit.

And some kind of rhythm.
Yes, that also connects to the voice of the people.

Are poets the voice of the people? And if so, is this why there is such a position as the Poet Laureate?
The Poet Laureate is a funny old business, in America the Poet Laureate changes every year. I think it’s a way of drawing attention to poetry now. When poet laureateships started a long time ago certainly poetry had a much more explicit role in society and there was much less division between what was poetry and what was not. There were fewer divisions generally; one of the great things about Richard Holmes’ marvellous book The Age of Wonder, about 18th century and early 19th century science and the scientists who discovered what we think of as the modern world. Humphry Davy, for example, is most famous for his miners’ lamp, but was just as serious about his poetry as he was about the science that he did, because that’s the way the world worked then. It’s too bad it doesn’t work that way now.

Do you think we’re more eager to define people these days?
Yes, partly because knowledge is more and more specialised, that’s the difficultly. I heard someone on the radio recently who said “there’s no one person in the world who knows how a mobile phone works”. Everybody knows a little tiny fragment of it and it’s put together and it’s a mobile phone. Our ability to understand in more and more depth has meant that everything has become fragmented, and I think that affects the arts too. Poetry is separate from fiction, is separate from painting, is separate from sculpture, and you have these separate worlds that don’t intersect as much as they should.

What is it about poetry that captivated you and how did it start?
As it starts for a lot of people, with a good English teacher! I was around ten when I first read the amazing poem, The Highwayman. Which, I suppose, is over the top by modern standards and we don’t generally think of Alfred Noyes as one of our great poets, but it’s one of those poems that grabs you by the throat and makes you, even at an early age, consider what it’s possible to do with language. That language can take you somewhere in yourself that you didn’t know it was possible to go before you found this method of going there.

It’s a way of looking at the world and also of thinking about how other people look at the world. How did Emily Dickinson look at the world? The world as refracted and reflected through her words becomes a new place; it’s amazing, and it stops you feeling jaded. If you read a great poem you think, “okay, I remember now why I’m here”. It brings you back to a feeling that there is a purpose in things, not a cosmic God-like purpose, but we can make sense of things. It does give you more of a sense of order and comfort that many people have gone through the same thing time and time and time again over thousands of years and that some people have found a way to express it.

I read Carol Ann Duffy’s book Rapture which is a marvellous book published a few years ago about the break-up of a relationship. At a very basic level it’s all the things that all of us have felt but have never had the skill to say and that’s a kind of personal consoling. Not all poetry works that way and we read all kinds of things for different reasons.

I do think language is the most powerful tool in the world.

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue Three – Promise

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