Monday, 14 April 2014

What's the point of poetry?

At a forthcoming open day for my department, in June, I've offered to talk to the topic 'What's the point of poetry?' and so perhaps I've been more attuned to these debates in recent weeks. Two particular experiences have struck me. The first was hearing a talk on Yeats by a colleague at a recent OUDCE Day School, at which he recounted amusingly the textual history of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' -- ranging from Flann O'Brien's (writing as Myles na Gopaleen) coruscating deconstruction of the poem to the Sligo tourist board's shameful plugging of Innisfree coach tours, pubs, and hotels (there's even an Innisfree perfume). But at the same time, as my colleague pointed out, everyone from Ireland seems to know the poem: and for the Irish diaspora, it helps them feel connected to home. This led to a discussion of a 1999 poll, conducted by the Irish Times, which discovered Irish people's 100 favourite poems. 'Innisfree' is there, yes, inevitably (at number 1), but so too are some really wonderful and less apparently 'populist' poems -- such as 'On Raglan Road' by the (really rather underrated) Patrick Kavanagh (at 5) and his ecstatic (and really rather erotic) sonnet 'Canal Bank Walk' at number 8. Yeats and Heaney dominate the list, inevitably, but it also contains Irish-language poetry, celebratory poems, difficult poems and, perhaps inevitably, poems about loss and love (such as Heaney's heart-breaking 'Mid-term Break', about his childhood experience of losing his brother, at number 3). Heaney, unlike Yeats (whose odd reading of 'Innisfree' is much played, and argued over), was a beautiful reader of his own poems -- and you can hear him reading 'Mid-term break' here.

Heaney was one of the early contributors, along with two other contributors who have also since passed (Frank Kermode and Christopher Hitchens), to the recent publication Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: another compilation of 100 poems. It is difficult to hear 'Mid-term Break', particularly with the little crack you hear in Heaney's voice as he says 'corpse', without welling up: but again the selection of poems shows how widely people still read, and how far poetry still has the power to move. The book led to a wonderful segment on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 programme last week, to which men contributed, and bravely read out poetry live: my favourite was a simple and effective reading of Christina Rossetti's 'Remember Me'. Perhaps the most brilliant thing about this collection, though, is not the desire to make 'men' cry (which might seem a little shameful, in a Richard Curtis-esque fashion), but the range of poems and thoughts provided. I was particularly moved by a small and beautiful poem ('Those who are near me') by the nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, who is having something of a renaissance at the moment. This is a clear example, I think, of a poem articulating something you might always have felt, but somehow couldn't quite put into words.

Those who are near me do not know that you are
   nearer to me than they are
Those who speak to me do not know that my heart
    is full with your unspoken words
Those who crowd in my path do not know that I
    am walking alone with you
Those who love me do not know that their love
    brings you to my heart 

--- And this, I think, is poetry's peculiar gift.

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