It’s unusual for me to wake late to the sound of London traffic on a Tuesday morning, with vivid and apparently real memories of having spent a large part of the previous evening discussing the importance of poetry with other poets, journalists, radio and even television interviewers. So winning this year’s TS Eliot award was as thought-provoking as it was gratifying to the ego and restorative of the bank balance.
Normally, I wake in the Fife countryside, to the sound of my neighbour’s sheep and the occasional buzzard and, on one level, that is what most of my poetry is “about”: everyday experiences, the land, the lives of other animals, the light on a certain kind of winter’s day, in a specific Scottish place, the seemingly unremarkable details of the here and now. Yet whenever the question “What does poetry do?” or “What is it for?” is raised, I have no hesitation in replying that poetry is central to our culture, and that it is capable of being the most powerful and transformative of the arts.
There are poems that have, literally, changed my life, because they have changed the way I looked at and listened to the world; there are poems that, on repeated reading, have gradually revealed to me areas of my own experience that, for reasons both personal and societal, I had lost sight of; and there are poems that I have read over and over again, knowing they contained some secret knowledge that I had yet to discover, but refused to give up on. So, at the most basic level, poetry is important because it makes us think, it opens us up to wonder and the sometimes astonishing possibilities of language. It is, in its subtle yet powerful way, a discipline for re-engaging with a world we take too much for granted.
When the purveyors of bottom-line thinking call a mountain or a lake a “natural resource”, something to be merely exploited and used up, poetry reminds us that lakes and mountains are more than items on a spreadsheet; when a dictatorship imprisons and tortures its citizens, people write poems because the rhythms of poetry and the way it uses language to celebrate and to honour, rather than to denigrate and abuse, is akin to the rhythms and attentiveness of justice. Central to this attentiveness is the key ingredient of poetry, the metaphor, which Hannah Arendt defined as “the means by which the oneness of the world is poetically brought about”. It’s that power to bring things together, to unify experience as “the music of what happens”, that the best poetry achieves.
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