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In Praise of Poetry

Author profile picture Christopher Crompton
22 July
Dear Internet,
You may have read my earlier open letter in praise of letters, and your presence on this platform suggests you likely already hold some affection for this form of writing. In extolling the virtues of letters, then, I may have been somewhat preaching to the converted. Now I want to face a greater challenge in laying before you a short case for what is in all evidence a much more divisive form of linguistic expression – poetry. I cannot count the times when, having mentioned in passing that I like a particular poet or referred to the relevance of a particular poem, a person has told me they don’t really like poetry. To them, I always respond with something along the same lines: “How many poems have you actually read?” Inevitably, the answer is usually that they have had very limited exposure to poetry, and the exposure they have had was not that pleasant. Often there are negative associations with being made to study some dry old verse under duress at school, or ideas that poetry readily falls prey to being whimsical and twee, or verbose and obscure, or hopelessly self-indulgent and romantic. All of these reservations and criticisms I understand and sympathise with. I wasn’t a fan of the poetry I studied at school and quickly grew bored of the protracted process of probing at what some dusty old poet may or may not have meant by his choice of words. The poems felt neither compelling nor relevant, and their study felt forced and frankly rather pointless. Thankfully, this hadn’t been my only formative experience of poetry, as my mother had started a practice when I was a young child of reading me a bedtime poem each night from a large book of collected poems. It was a cornucopia of a collection: some poems were funny, others profound; some rhymed and some did not; some landed pleasingly while others were met with pure bafflement. What it taught me was not to give up on poetry just because some poems did nothing for me. After all, how would it be if we each read a handful of novels and decided based upon them that we don’t like novels? Would we listen to one radio station we dislike, then declare that we don’t like songs? So I say this to those of you who are ambivalent or outright averse to poetry: you probably just haven’t found your kind of poems yet. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of poetry and have accumulated several shelves of poetry books. The great majority of the poems I read I didn’t really like, or didn’t derive any real meaning or pleasure from, so I admittedly had to do a bit of sifting to find the voices and subjects that spoke to me. But it was absolutely worth it. I now have a collection of poems and poets that I return to, again and again, to be entertained, for mental stimulation, to invoke particular feelings, to relate to thoughts and experiences of my own, or simply to enjoy the skill and effectiveness of the writing itself and draw inspiration for my own writing. And I will keep actively reading more poems to find other such gems that enrich my life in some way. I encourage you to go exploring yourself: find poets of different countries and cultures, of different times and styles, and keep going until something lands, making you feel something or think about something with novelty. Once you find a poet you like, look up their contemporaries and influences too. There are tremendous, free resources online that make a great treasure chest readily available to you. If that seems too daunting, and you have absolutely no idea where to begin, here is a small and accessible selection of ten of my favourite poems to date: • Text – Carol Ann Duffy • Poem – Simon Armitage • Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley • Digging – Seamus Heaney • Yes, I’ll Marry You, My Dear – Pam Ayres • When Great Trees Fall – Maya Angelou • This Be the Verse – Philip Larkin • The Revenant – Billy Collins • A Thousand Kisses Deep – Leonard Cohen • Rain – Don Paterson Again, each of us is different in what speaks to us in a poem, so these are just a few that I like; I’d urge you to branch out and find what works for you. For those of you who already enjoy poetry and have found poems and poets you value, it would be wonderful to hear in reply your own stories of discovery and meaning, the ways in which those poems perhaps struck you with a pertinent observation, perhaps challenged you or lent new insight or perspective, or brought joy or comfort. Maybe we might then collectively convince some of those who dismiss poetry or simply have not yet been drawn to poems that they really don’t know what they’re missing! Yours,

Christopher Crompton

Author profile picture Christopher Crompton
25 July
Dear Christopher Crompton,

Your description of the strange way people often react to the topic of poetry is something I have thought a lot about over the past few years. It seems that now, in the “post-internet” era, two separate factions of poetry-haters have emerged: people who remember being bored by John Donne at school, and people who have come to associate “poetry” with low-effort, 3-line aphorisms screenshot on white backgrounds and uploaded to Instagram. Of all the art forms, poetry might be the one that is hardest to have a conversation about, not only because there are so few people who engage with it seriously, but because most people struggle to even define it. Poetry is maligned in a way that no other form seems to be. On this topic, I recommend the novella-length essay by Ben Lerner (one of my personal favourite contemporary poets) called ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. He starts the essay by arguing that an embarrassment about the medium is somehow baked into the form itself, and even poets themselves are incapable of escaping it while poetry has its current social status. He then establishes a narrative metaphor around the story of Cædmon and uses it to illuminate his argument as he turns his focus to the various cultural problems poetry faces.

And here are some of my personal favourite contemporary poems, off the top of the dome:

‘Feel Free’ - Nick Laird
‘Midsummer’ - William Bronk
‘Whatever It Is, Wherever You Are’ - John Ashbery
‘The rose has a minutely serrate margin…’ - Ben Lerner

Roz Counelis

Roz Counelis
28 July
Dear Christopher Crompton,

I remember clearly the first time I read Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot. While I had been writing and reading poetry before, this experience stood out to me as what I might call the "spark". Poetry became more than a way of expressing myself—obscuring honesty into ambiguous sentence shapes—it became a means of transportation to another world. I cannot forget the rhythm of the lines, the way my eyes drew down the page, how quickly I read through the poem that made no sense to my mind but felt so familiar. It's a poem I have returned to over and over again, though now I think East Coker has become more meaningful to me.

In Eliot's prose works, he speaks about the "difficult poem", the one that is difficult to parse or understand, and that does its work upon us while we work our way through it. Poems become something of an incantation, a magic, when they are written well. It makes me think of how David Abram describes the alphabet and the technologies built from it as a potent magic. Those who love poetry seem to have this shared understanding of the magic of a poem—an ability to surrender to the experience, to allow themselves to slip into the myth, or the trance, or the feeling. Rhythm in the form of rhyme or alliteration is exceptionally powerful for this purpose, as is vivid imagery, and recalling of the familiar. If you haven't had this experience or find it difficult to engage with, how could you love poetry?

I appreciate your recommendations for where to start, I imagine it could be what trying to dig a well feels like when you don't know where the underground water flows. I would like to contribute a few more points, which I hope will be helpful. The first is regarding taste, the second is about the anthropology of poetry.

Your example of not liking music because of listening to a bad radio station stands out for me. I wonder if the study of poetry has been too much associated with something archaic or pretentious, if centuries of meaning have been encased in a small box of disliked notions, packed away with old high school report cards. I wonder if the movements and changes over many years have been lost in the retelling—much like music composition. Art seems to have enjoyed slightly more differentiation between schools of thought. It may be that paintings are easier to digest, and are therefore easier to like or dislike, whereas with a poem, one must commit to at least reading it once through. There may be an argument here for how attention has been impacted by technology, but I think the more interesting aspect here is taste. Sir Herbert Read's The Meaning of Art is both insightful and insulting in that it provides an encyclopaedic overview of art but also takes time to address what he doesn't like and who he doesn't like. He doesn't shy away from expressing his opinions or taste. The art becomes personal and the artists familiar. I think more people should be encouraged to identify which poems and poets they dislike. I noticed a reply to your letter calling John Donne boring, who happens to be one of my absolute favourites. While I think this writer is wrong, I respect this identification. Even within the single-stanza white-background screenshot poetry, there are vast discrepancies between the calibre of poetry. Upile Chisala is one who stands out as having very distilled poetry that is dense with meaning and feeling. I wonder if those of us who love poetry are doing a good job of recommending? Gretchen McCulloch's advice on recommendations comes to mind, which encourages us to explain why we like what we are recommending, what it is that speaks to us, what is memorable for us. I also wonder if speaking about what we don't like, be it poem or poet, and encouraging others to be opinionated would help open up the vast landscapes of poetry.

Donne didn't come alive to me until I read a book about his life and his poems. Once I had a sense of who he was, the age he was living in, and where he was coming from, his poetry became personal. If you tell me you don't like Donne, I would ask what of his works you've read? Is it the cheeky, flowery (and sometimes inappropriate) songs and sonnets? Is it the divine poems from later in his life? Have you considered the wit of his satires or paradoxes? Or was it his treatise on suicide that scared you off? In truth, I don't think Donne would've become so meaningful to me had I not seen him through the eyes of someone who already admired him. This is, I think, the power of a good recommendation.

As to the anthropology, even as with my example of Donne, his work makes a lot more sense when you see it through the lens of his time. Context can often be the price of entry, and sometimes this requires long study (I still haven't made it through the first volume of The History of English Poetry), or a helpful guide (like Maria Popova). Once you understand the context or meanings of the words, if you are willing to remain curious, the sense of the poem often folds out in front of you. Sometimes the first time you hear a poem, it sounds like a beautiful language you don't understand. This is helpful, but it's also important to remember that poetry is a part of our culture. It's not just the inclusion of poetry in ceremonies or memorials, it's that our earliest cultural histories were passed down in song and rhythm and rhyme—before there were history books, we had poetry as a way to remember. Consider Beowulf as an example. Good poetry, like any good art, can tell us about the people and their time, about circumstances, feelings, shared experiences, the matter that sits in the gestalt between people for which there are not yet words.

I think a lot about the end of the 19th century and the poems that emerged from around then. Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows speak of the premonitions of Rilke, as if he could sense in his bones the coming terror of the early 20th century. He was so aware of his time, like a prophet who saw these things of the future like unknown impressions. I think about Ocean Vuong who's deeply tender poems and expressive story-telling offers a gentle entry into the horrors of war and loss. John O'Donohue is well verse in grief and sadness, which sits beside him like an old friend while he voices his longing. Walt Whitman teaches us how to pay attention, how to see the world, and how to find ourselves. Yoko Ono's poems are ephemeral and feel as though they are the traced remains of whatever universe she is seeing, and yet their staying power and humble wisdom is tremendous.

When we see poetry, not as something designed for easy or convenient digestion, but as something that has a secret to whisper into our ear while we are paying attention to something else, then can we begin to engage. To me, the best poems are the ones that feel like they understand me long before I come to understand the poem. Does this make sense? Not logically. But I think that's the point. These poetic ways of expressing felt phenomena are used because there is yet no other way to effectively communicate. If one is closed off to feeling, or believes logic to supersede all else, then poetry may be inaccessible. In this way, poetry is also an invitation to return to ourselves and engage our most basic instincts of feeling and sensing.

One of my favourite examples of the power of poetry is an anthology called A Secret Burden: Memories of the Border War by South African Soldiers Who Fought in It. It's a collection of amateur, and sometimes bad, poetry written by soldiers about their experiences. The nature of trauma is such that often experiences feel unspeakable, and even if you could present the facts, that would be a poor communication of what actually took place and what it felt like. Poetry obscures cold hard "fact" like a lens might and illuminates that which a clinical retelling would not. Poetry in this book communicates devastation, confusion, despair, and the slow breaking of will for the young men conscripted. I think poetry could be a better medium here than pictures or other depictions because it obscures what happened and leaves only the processing that takes place thereafter. It allows one to speak in circles around what is unspeakable. Because of this, to some degree, it also provides the dignity of forgetting which Susan Sontag speaks of.

I am so grateful to live in an age of technological development and scientific discovery. These are like the buildings of a city, which are beautiful and tangible. But I sometimes worry that this has been held in higher esteem than looking at the movements between, the process, the flow, the shifting change over time that cannot be made sedentary—rather it is sedimentary, the product of water and air over time leaving only a residue of words for us to learn from. I believe poetry is a part of us, it is the companion technology to our scientific writings and it is just as much magic.

Here's hoping for the return of the myth of the poem,

Jay Matthews

Jay Matthews
11 October
Dear Christopher Crompton,

The problem with poetry is that, if you just add a letter to the word and rearrange the letters, you get a word that rhymes beautifully with it: poverty. I don't want to starve if I can help it. There are so many other activities that involve similar abilities and discipline which are both more rewarded and more rewarding. And there are already plenty of poems to draw from so that one hardly needs to produce more. But it is an interesting exercise in itself and it need not be published in order to be satisfying for the poet himself.



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