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What is Poetry?

Published by on January 4, 2011

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Poetry is an art much neglected — or mangled — by the anti-Western ideologues that dominate what remains of our culture today. But it is an integral part of our civilization, and we are incomplete without it.

by Martin Wright Sampson, Professor of English Literature, Cornell University

I REMEMBER that as a small boy I used to wonder what there would be left to discover when the waste places on my maps were dotted with names, when from pole to pole we should be familiar with this round world of ours. The thought that we had not yet explored everything appealed to my sense of adventure, when lifting my head out of the enchanting pages of Jules Verne, I could see myself, larger and sterner than life, crossing vast deserts, penetrating mysterious jungles, scaling impending cliffs, and winning the fair daughter of an incredible king. I was boyishly glad that there were unexplored tracts in Africa and Australia and about the frozen limits of the poles — they were old Earth’s pledges to her little son that glory and loveliness had not passed away. The vacant stretches were not vacant, for in them romance lay hid.

The childish notion of romance quietly fades, and in its place there comes the true romance. I did not need to grow all the way to manhood to learn that if the wastes of the world gave fewer and fewer opportunities for discovery, yet there was before me the known world, more mysterious in what it had done than any wild expanse of land that had no history. The thought of the past made magical the present. Europe — word of potent charm that sent visions racing through my brain — was ready to be revealed to me. What if it had been known through old centuries? to me it would be new. What if mankind were older still? to me it was unspeakably new.

After all, it was the child’s notion still, but real now and lasting. For what was, and what is, romance to me but the possibility of discovering new things? A dreaming boy might look for them in the fantastic, in the remote, but a man shall find them in the things long since found out, and in his own heart. Romance does not pass, for man is a poet. Steeped in reverie, or thrilling with power, he yearns for the things that are waiting to be discovered by him. I care not if this dream be of a Jacob’s ladder from heaven, or of a rail-road from Cairo to the Cape, the dream is the romance of life, and we cling to it by an instinct surer than reason. Certain men who could look within and without themselves and write, have written a myriad of visions whose name is poetry, and in behalf of this I speak.

What is poetry? The question appears quickly with no quick and cogent answer accompanying it. In the way of the spirit we can reach a common meaning; in the way of the letter, probably not. For poetry has as yet eluded definition. Those marks that commonly seem to distinguish it fail as touchstones when we make the final test. Poetry lies not solely in the use of metre — is not the English translation of Job a poem? not in continuous felicity of style is not Wordsworth a poet? not in a great theme nor in a deep conception — is not some of the most beautiful poetry as irresponsible as a flower? Such qualities are, to be sure, oftenest present in poetry, but they do not separately ensure the name of poetry to the writings in which they appear. Poems succeed by virtue of something other than the outward and visible sign, and each of us preserves in his heart his criterion, the inward and spiritual grace. That which indefinably touches us is poetry to us, though to others it be doggerel or rant. That which others proclaim great or beautiful is not poetry to us if it does not wind its way into our souls. In the main, because we are like one another, we agree; and when we agree that the thing which has spoken to us is poetry, then truly it is poetry — for who else shall judge? The poet writes for the world to read, and when the world is deeply touched and again and again reaffirms its judgment, it has given in its practical way an answer to our question. The answer is not a definition: we may define it if we can.

Now that which is at the bottom of all our attempted definitions of poetry is a sense of something personal and precious. And because of its very intimacy, this personal and precious something is both variable and constant. It may change, as mood shifts into mood; but it persists, as our identity persists. As this poetical nature of ours varies, we feel the futility of defining it; while it remains, we know that to question its power is vain. It is an elusive and lasting part of us, which we can neither master nor escape from, to which we are not slave and from which we desire no release.

This deep-seated element is one of which we have no cause to be ashamed. We do not talk of it in the market-place, but we are inwardly proud of it and must preserve it at all hazards. For although it is lasting, it is not everlasting, and sometimes may linger hidden and hardly subject to our call. If this tender and almost sacred element is not kept safe, something of the sweetness goes out of our waking hours, and our dreams are only the disordered fantasies of sleep.

I am speaking seriously when I say it is at our high peril that we allow to become dormant this poetic sensibility. Our natures are none so rich that we can afford to let go even a little of their wealth. I say this seriously, and yet, I hope, temperately; for I am by no means ready to urge that the poetical in us is our very best part. It yields, if it can so be separated, to the religious, to the heroic, to the contrite in us; and spells beauty more than it does serene steadfastness of purpose. But saying that says the worst thing that can be said against it. If it may seem at times to be nothing more than beauty, it is always, assuredly, nothing less. Life would be poor without it.

Poetry, then, to which this profound element in us responds, might seem to need no support or defense. But we all know that poetry is not, on the whole, very widely read; that when highly thought of, it is often respected rather than made to enter fully into daily life; and that it is often completely misunderstood.

One misunderstanding, which may stand for them all, is that poetry is essentially opposed to common sense, an affair of dreamers, a weak and rather maudlin thing. Now poetry is, to be sure, an affair of dreamers; but all dreamers are not maudlin; and dreams are chiefly of two classes, the silly and the true, and poetry at bottom deals with the true. Instead of being the opposite of common sense, poetry is therefore the superlative of common sense. The misconception of poetry as a rather effeminate thing may have arisen in several ways: for instance, many poems deal with things that at a given time may be uninteresting to mature men and women, and impatience leads to sweeping judgment. Thus all poetry suffers in their minds from the casual inadequacy of specific examples.

Indifference is probably a more serious obstacle than misconception, indifference of those who really apprehend poetry and who have at one time been genuinely fond of it. The habit of reading poetry has not been kept up; and one cannot long remain susceptible to any art if the appreciation of it is not habitual. The failure to keep on reading is partly due to an ignorance of the scope of poetry. We read certain kinds of verse in school and suppose them to be entirely representative of poetry, when indeed they are not. And we read certain kinds of poetry somewhat ignorantly in youth, and trusting our youthful judgment never recur to them again. “Paradise Lost” has often been sacrificed to immaturity.

The best way of remaining open to the appeal of poetry is to study it seriously. One who has mastered the fundamental laws of a process is unlikely to lose whatever enjoyment the result can give him. Out of continuous, thoughtful reading comes understanding. Out of understanding comes a renovation of heart and soul.

Perhaps we are assuming too easily that the thesis is established: that poetry has a peculiarly great value to us. Let us consider some of the things that poetry may do for a reader. Poetry makes external nature more delightful to us. The violet, the rose, the song-birds, clouds and streams and mountains, mean more to us because poets have spoken of them. I do not mean that the poets may have seen more in nature than other men see. Some men see more than the poets. It is not merely what the poet sees, but what he says, that makes his comment on nature inspiring. To the daffodil Shakespeare and Wordsworth add a charm: their words are as much a part of the flower as if they were petals. I cannot look at daffodils without seeing more than their yellow. They tell me Shakespeare’s words anew:

“Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty.”

They sing again to me Wordsworth’s imperishable song,

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

A brook under the trees makes me hear Coleridge as well as the brook’s noise.

“A noise like of a hidden brook,
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.”

Nature is richer to me because a poet has said the right word for all time. Poetry is full of these fleeting secrets fastened into steadfast words. Shakespeare and Shelley, Keats and Browning, have added to the music of the lark, the nightingale, the thrush, true words that the unknowing birds carelessly sing to all who love poetry.

But what poetry does for external nature, that, in far greater degree, it does for human nature. It reveals the human spirit, that means more than flowers or mountains, even when these arise before us through words of consummate tenderness or majesty. And human nature must mean more to us still, when we have heard poetry’s word about it. I do not know in how many ways, in how many accents, this word may be spoken, but I do know that the message is so large that even the message of nature seems small beside it. In his own way the poet tells us of life; and I, his reader, come away liking life better, feeling that its joys and sorrows have been made lucid to me.

If a poet make individual men stand before us, his characters enter into the close circle of our acquaintance. Our horizon widens as we hear their stories, receive their confidences, love, struggle, and suffer with them. We step from out the cramping present into some spacious hail where Hamlet or Launcelot awaits our coming and for a brief space is ours in spite of all the world. The moving figures do not take the place of life, but they reveal endless possibilities of life. It is hard to imagine a mood in which there shall be no personage from the high realm of poetry ready to speak to me if I am willing to listen. Thus I escape my hereditary and social limitations and add to my experience, experience I never shall have; and it may be with a stouter heart I can face the conflicts that must be mine, if I have held my breath when heroes flung their challenge, and have stared all eyes when they struggled with doubts or passions or dragons and came out with the glory of victory on their brows.

And even more than such figures of heroic and kindly men, drawn by the poet’s fancy, I value the revelation of that unassailable reality, the soul of the poet himself, who tells with penetrating candor his yearnings, temptations, failures, and triumphs; who speaks because he cannot keep silent; who speaks beautifully because his thought finds no expression in the repulsive and ugly; who speaks nobly be-cause his nature is noble; who speaks in poetry because by the grace of God a poet he was born.

Such revelations hearten and strengthen a man. They make him know his own heart better, they give him a better own heart to know. He who has shared with sympathy the recounted experience of another man is thereby the more fitted to share in the actual lives of his fellows, and knowing mankind better is thereby more human.

I know that it needs not poetry thus to delight and deepen and broaden a man. Life itself may give a man abiding knowledge of life. To life, poetry is essentially secondary: no verses can take the place of living. But in a deeper sense poetry is a part of life: a poem is a personal fact to writer and reader, every whit as much as pleasure and pain. A fancied adventure is not a real adventure, but a poem’s effect is intensely real. One would ten thousand times rather do something heroic than read or write of heroism, but is it utterly vain to read of heroism? Will a man’s thoughts grow noble the more surely if you take away from him the noble pages of literature? Of a certainty such reading is real experience.

The practical advantage of letting poetry enter into one’s life is easily possible to show. Over and over again one is thrown on his own resources and meets emergencies in which his character is crucially tested. He must make decisions, he must act; and all that there is to prompt and back him is what he is at the moment of need. What he is determines what he shall be. At his best he can do things only to the limit of what that best may be. Now if there has entered into his life, as a valid part of it, the vision, the insight, that poetry may give, there will be a lift in his nature that will add something to what used to be his best: and because of his assimilation of the spirit of poetry; because the happy words, the shining phrases, the glowing passion, of poetry have many a time cleared up a dull hour and become part of his habit; because day by day his brain will have been fitted with better thoughts and feelings than he could have created for himself — the man will have behind him an inspired and strengthened character to guide his choosing mind, his eager hand. To live with beauty is not only to give oneself a joy, it is to have the power of beauty at one’s call. A man’s life would be in a deep and manly way purified and sweetened if each day he could gain a little of the inspiration that poets fuse into their verse and have it share his visions for that day. The wise poet was right who advised us, daily to see a beautiful picture, daily to read a beautiful poem. He was right, he was practical.

Continually to be a sharer in the wholesome gifts of art, of the most accessible and broadest of the arts, literature, to partake freely of the bounty of our sage and generous brethren, the poets of our race, this is to cherish well the immortal part of us, this is to preserve the soul from the stupefying commonplace, this is to use wisely the talents the Master has lent us.



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