Life sometimes presents you with friends in unlikely places. My first plan was to title this post “Why Poetry Matters”, but I had an inkling that wasn’t wholly original. So I went for my fallback option: In Defense of Poesy—only to discover that this title, too, has its precedents. Two of those are no small fry at all.
Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney wrote The Defence of Poesie around 1579, although the work wasn’t published until 1595 (after the author’s death). Sidney composed his Defence as a judicial address, an answer to the growing social criticism of poetry, theater and the arts in general—or what we might now call “entertainment”—in his age. Poetry was seen by puritanical critics as frivolous and corrupting. It muddled the mind with fanciful, trivial ideas that distracted attention from Christian ethics, the appreciation of history and the true philosophy of virtue.
Sidney defends poetry’s honor by arguing that it brings together the best qualities of history (a lively and engaging narrative) and philosophy (a deep understanding of right and wrong) in a way that is more compelling to many readers than either history or philosophy could be on their own. He concludes that “the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness”.
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his own A Defence of Poetry in 1821. This work, like Sidney’s, wasn’t published until after the author’s death. (It first appeared in an 1840 collection of letters and essays.) Again like Sidney, Shelley responded to criticism of poetry in his age. In this case, however, the accusation was not that poetry was dangerous, but that it had been eclipsed by science and had become irrelevant.
Shelley’s argument in favor of poetry is that unlike science, it is not objective, disinterested and sterile. Quite the contrary, he reasons, poetry is the purest expression of the ability of language to convey the essence of our humanity: sensations and ideas like feeling, beauty, truth, pleasure, and harmony. To Shelley, poetry is both a deeply personal and a deeply social endeavor; the poet is at once a rebel and a servant to the public good. He ends his essay by saying that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The Value of Poesy
From this small sampling, you can see that poetry was under assault in the 16th century for being a danger to the newly emerging powers that be. In the 19th century, it was slated for obsolescence, a presumed relict of the prescientific era. But of course, we know that poetry was alive and kicking in both of those eras. It’s just that there were forces seeking to diminish or belittle the extent of what poetry could achieve. They failed. Poetry survived those onslaughts and is still around today.
So why, according to the title at the top of this page, does poetry still need defending in the 21st century?
I may be wrong, but my sense is that many people see poetry as at best a quaint pastime for the sentimentally inclined, at worst a torturous high-school literature class for the rest of us. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about boilerplate greeting-card verses. What seems to have dropped largely below the radar of the public at large is a living acquaintance with poetry as a force for conveying meaningful insights into the human condition.
To be fair, throughout most of history, most people in most places have not cared much for poetry either way. Its detractors as well as its defenders can most reliably be found in the circles of the enlightened, the educated, the well-to-do. At the same time, there have always been and will likely always be those who are passionate about the art of poetry.
But even so: when was the last time you wrote a poem? Okay, when was the last time you read one, closely, attentively? Do you know many people who regularly read poetry? Or write it? My point exactly.
A Poetry for the Age
Poetry has had to redefine itself as other means of communications usurped parts of its domain. Homer’s Iliad would today not be delivered in poetry—it would be a CGI-heavy Netflix series. Virgil’s Aeneid could be a novel. Beowulf might now be a dark fantasy movie; Shakespeare’s sonnets a Spotify playlist; Pope’s The Rape of the Lock a viral YouTube video. And, crucially, that intimate poem of delight or desperation penned into her notebook by an anonymous youth under a tree a century of two ago may now have transformed into a 7‑second video in an Instagram Story.
The beauty of poetry is that it is different things at different times to different people. Poetry doesn’t have to be Literature, but it does have to matter. What its value is may be determined in large part by what the zeitgeist needs poetry to be. That is a question for Sidney’s and Shelley’s successors, the guardians of the poetic realm.
But what about you and me? How do we support poetry in an age where there are more messages vying for our attention than ever before? And why should we care? To me, the answer is: because there is no such thing as “popcorn poetry”. You can go to the movies, read a book, listen to music and scan social media to forget about the world for a while. Escapism is a rush, and entertainment provides it in spades.
But poetry is different. If a poem doesn’t make you think, it’s not doing its job. A good poem is laparoscopic surgery for the mind: it only requires a tiny point of entry, but once it gets under your skin it can transform you. And poetry doesn’t come free. You have to pay for its beneficial effects, and the currency is humanity. Poetry forces you to be honest, open, humble, willing to expand beyond yourself. It speaks to you as an individual and as a standard-bearer for humankind.
Poetry asks hard questions and answers them with more questions. It never lets you off the hook. Writing a poem is like taking a long, hard look in the mirror. That doesn’t mean that poetry must be brutal—it can be soothing, too. It is bitter and it is sweet and it invites you to make up your own mind, to know your own heart. Poetry isn’t “difficult”, it is without pretense. It doesn’t let you get away with pretending to be anything else than what you are. In the age of Big Data, poetry is Little Data.
That is why poetry matters, and that is why it can do with a little help from its friends. From me and you. So look up a poem every now and then. Don’t know where to start? Try here, here, here and here.
Switch gears from the “ludicrous speed” of the digital age to the speed of quiet contemplation. Did you read a poem? Great, now read it again. There’s always more to find. Read it out loud. Ask someone else what they think of it. Write a poem yourself and don’t keep it in a cupboard. It doesn’t have to be Great Poetry, is just has to be true to you.
Now let’s go breed some delightfulness.
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