What Role Does Poetry Play in Society?
“Such is our pride, our folly, or our fate, That few but such as cannot write, translate.”Sir John Denham (1615–69), English poet. To Sir Richard Fanshaw upon his translation of Pastor Fido.
“Poetry is what is lost in translation.”
Robert Frost (1874–1963), U.S. poet. Quoted in: Louis Untermeyer, Robert Frost: a Backward Look, ch. 1 (1964). Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, in Biographia Literaria, ch. 22 (1817): “In poetry, in which every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice, it is possible, and barely possible, to attain that ultimatum which I have ventured to propose as the infallible test of a blameless style; namely: its untranslatableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning.”
With a word the universe was created and man along with it, endowed with the ability to speak forth ideas and, by extension, more concrete realities into existence. Rhetoric, “the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively and poetry, one of its refined manifestations, is no less than an attempt to emulate the glory of God by manifesting truth and form where before there was nothing. Priest, poet, and blacksmith, these three, stood before the king in ancient times. Priests and blacksmiths are easily identifiable but how do we describe the poet? The Greek and Latin roots of the word “poet” mean “creator” describing “one who demonstrates great imaginative power, insight, or beauty of expression”. Therefore the poet must be more than a writer of pretty words. Perhaps the topic of this essay should be “what role does the poet play in society?”
If I consider myself a poet, surely I am not a particularly literate one. Nevertheless, I would define poetry to be any artful use of language beyond common prose, period. Yes, let them all in, plenty of room you know! Eminem, Manilow, advertising executives, lavatory scriveners, peoples with degrees in English, poets all. When I write poetry I mean to reach my audience in the deepest part of their being. I want to make them feel absolutely sure that I know what I am talking about, because they are able to understand what I am saying so clearly. I want to turn the universe upon a point before them. Or make them laugh. I am not seeking fame. Ideally I am just seeking one person who understands; who will embrace me and acknowledge a secret that we share; a mutual agreement that we are both sane. Like the poet Pablo Neruda in Michael Radford’s Il Postino, I want you to know that you are a poet too. Our culture is filled with poets of greater or lesser magnitude who are speaking and singing their dreams, commercial or otherwise, to a people who are as eager as ever to hear them and take what comfort there is to be found in them. That we seem to be returning to a more oral tradition that the written one we have been enjoying for the past century does not worry me. It appears obvious that poetry is still playing a major role in our society.
That the literary elite decry the lack of quality in this age is inconsequential. The idea of “formal” or “classical” poetry is an artificial one with limited usefulness, I think. This is not to say that classical forms should be abandoned. But at the same time, poetry is about the “now”. Poetry proceeds as much from the bowels and the loins as from the brain. I may be mistaken of course, but I as I read Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, I don’t get the impression that he has ever sat in a really smoky coffeehouse, in a really dangerous neighborhood, listening to a really drunk guy recite really bad beat poetry, while really enjoying it. Peter Weir’s movie, Dead Poet’s Society is a celebration of non-conformity. Academia is always about conformity. It has to be so. Academics take students who know nothing and show them a few basic rules in the hope that someday these same students will do something that no one has ever done before. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of most people to think that just learning to obey the rules is enough. Dead Poet’s Society is the story of two opposing camps that are both encouraging students to learn their place in society. The sober administration reinforces the idea that the student is an infinitesimal spec of dust in the cosmos, and should act like it. But their professor, John Keating, stresses the idea that if they are specks of dust, so was Shakespeare. They are no better than he. Seize the day! Take poetry into your heart to fan the fire there, and go and light your own fires. This is what poetry is for, to call the soldier to war, to call the lover to bed. It is more rewarding to experience these things then to study them. Historically, few scholars have been able to recognize genius in their own time. That has been the purview of the masses. Small and great alike still seek the philosopher-king, the warrior-poet, who will speak some word of peace to them. Personally, I believe that He has already come, and will return again. While I wait, I will attempt to amuse myself with the world over which I have been given dominion, and trust that poetry will in some measure help me to understand and explain it.
Louis William Rose
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