Sat 21 October 2017
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The Mindfulness of Poetry
Author: Sarah Wardle
Dr Sarah Wardle offers a succinct survey of long standing debates on the purpose and function of poetry.


This article re-explores the shifting ground of what poetry is and how it operates. Extracts from historical theorists of poetry from Plato to Heaney are included to present a review of existing literature, as their voices comment, develop and counter-balance one another. The question itself of what poetry is, the ontology of poetry, the institutional theory of art as applied to poetry, and ideas of expression, emotion, imagination, truth, wisdom, usefulness and humanity in connection with poetry are thereby revisited. The article covers a broad range of approaches to poetry in general to re-open the discussion of what we assume before we even approach a poem. At the close I point to new ways of thinking based on old ideas and revitalize the language used in discussion through the vocabulary of psychology to interpret the usefulness of poetry to us as individuals and to society. In doing so I want to update the discourse to a contemporary emphasis on the mindfulness of poetry and poetry’s value in practice today. It is hoped this article will stimulate journal debate about poetry as something weighty, concerned with feeling and wisdom, which has a transformative social and personal use in the modern age.

Keywords: poetry; theories of poetry; social usefulness of poetry; psychology of poetry; poetry as mindfulness.

Poetry -
but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.

As Szymborska (1988: 227) observes, the question “What is poetry?” is hard to answer, but in this article I shall examine the field and propose a revised solution. The problem of definition is raised by Housman in The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933: 9):

When one begins to discuss the nature of poetry, the first impediment in the way is the inherent vagueness of the name, and the number of its legitimate senses.

The O.E.D (1971) lists several senses. "Poetry" may refer to form, or language, “differing more or less from those of ordinary speech or prose writing”.  It may indicate function, referring to “The expression or embodiment of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination, or feeling, in language adapted to stir the imagination and emotions”. Moreover, “poetry” may refer to “creative or imaginative art in general”. Or it may mean “Something resembling or compared to poetry”, that is “a poetical quality, spirit, or feeling”, found not only in poetry itself and other arts, but also in nature. This last sense of poetry being found in nature presumably springs from the idea of God as Creator, or “poet” in the Greek sense of “maker”, derived from poieo, “I make”.  Indeed the idea of a poem as an independent, miniature cosmos, created by the poet, was popular in the Renaissance. Later the “made” product was seen to entail a gestalt, greater than the sum of its parts, encapsulating the breathed spirit of a poem.

If you look up “Poetry, Theories of” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, you will find subheadings for mimetic, pragmatic, expressive and objective theories. At the end of the entry (Preminger 1974: 648), attention is drawn to an argument which seems a good starting-point for discussion, namely that the question “What is poetry?” itself may be questioned.  Influenced by Wittgenstein, philosophical analysts have approached poetic theory from a sceptical position. They believe a general definition of art and poetry, or indeed a general definition of anything, is bound to be arbitrary, since no empirical test for it could exist. They conclude that the only legitimate criticism is applied criticism, involving verifiable statements about specific poems. But applied criticism of individual poems is rooted in layers of historical theory, and we need to reassess the ideas we have inherited, so that we are fully aware of the terms we use when discussing poetry, as well as notions into which we tap when writing. 

In his “Preface” to
The Renaissance, Pater pointed to the dangers involved in discussing abstract terms, such as beauty or poetry:

Such discussions help us very little to enjoy what has been well done in art or poetry, to discriminate between what is more and what is less excellent in them, or to use words like beauty, excellence, art, poetry, with a more precise meaning than they would otherwise have. (1990: 90)

Pater concludes we should only study specific examples of art, or poetry, since he thinks, like the later philosophical analysts, that terms such as beauty and poetry can only function properly in a relative context. Although he may be right in dismissing the existence of universal entities, Pater is surely wrong to write off aesthetic theories as unhelpful, as theoretical discussions of poetry establish useful premises and criteria for judging poems. Though we may assume that applied criticism is based on “common sense”, we in fact approach a poem with all the various preconceptions which surround the term “poetry”, so that it becomes imperative to tease out these senses before we can engage in the act of criticism. We may assume the goal of poetry is to please, to teach, to convey the poet’s feelings, or all three, and depending on our assumptions we will rate a poem accordingly. A critic who recognized the need to subject the critical discussion of poetry to analysis was I. A. Richards.  In “The Definition of a Poem” (Richards 1934: 225) he writes:

We may be talking about the artist’s experience, such of it as is relevant, or about the experience of a qualified reader who made no mistakes, or about an ideal and perfect reader’s possible experience, or about our own actual experience. ... Which of these possible definitions of a poem shall we adopt?

Here Richards is not so much defining poetry as analyzing how we discuss the text of a poem, but the motive is the same: to clarify the terms used in critical debate.

A point related to the problems which Richards noted about the various experiences of the poet, the reader, or the “perfect reader”, is the issue of how a poem may be said to exist. Does a poem only exist at the time of its composition, or when it is read, or heard? Does it exist when it is just words on a page, or copies in books, though there may be no one engaging with it? A poem can be said to exist in people’s present and memories without there being a text, as in antiquity, for example with Homer’s performed oral epics, but can it be said to exist in people’s memories even when it is not being recited, or recalled? The common sense view might be that a poem is words on a page, but questioning how a poem can be said to exist emphasizes that poetry is a mental and emotional phenomenon. Furthermore, considering the problem of who experiences poetry, whether it is the poet, or the reader, or whether it is a historical or modern audience, throws up the problem that there may never be an authentic experience, or definitive interpretation of a poem. And there is a further problem of the possibility of a plurality of experiences and interpretations over and against a definitive interpretation, as we can see in Roland Barthes’ view of the death of the author and birth of the reader, which he discussed in his essay, “The Death of the Author” (1977). It is this view of a plurality of interpretations over and against the author’s consciousness of his, or her, intention, experience and viewpoint that I set out deliberately to mock in my poem, “Author!  Author!” in
A Knowable World, where the poet has the first and final word:

Readers, know that writing is a private pleasure.
Each of you may interpret these words together,
yet the key to these usages, here, remains with me,
for it is your very absence that lets this poem be… (Wardle 2009: 34)

At the poem’s close the poet’s bones take with them “their true, unverified secret”. In particular, in Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay, “The Intentional Fallacy” (1972), it never struck me as a convincing argument that one could not telephone a dead author to verify a poem’s interpretation; if a reading were right, it would be the true interpretation regardless of whether the author could verify this; that interpretation, though unverifiable, would still be the one true one. Nevertheless, this is not to denigrate the critic’s, or academic’s, search for interpretation and meaning, for it is the case that authors can be unaware of their subconscious intentions, which critics can interestingly tease out, and also that a good reviewer, or academic, might correctly interpret a writer’s positions and themes.

Furthermore, the goal of poetic theorists is not necessarily always to arrive at impartial truths about the nature of poetry. Since many writers on poetics are first and foremost poets, not academics, they may sometimes be more concerned to write polemic which supports their own poetic aims, than to produce a neutral inquiry. In
Making, Knowing, and Judging, Auden (1956: 25) notes:

In unkind moments one is almost tempted to think that all they are really saying is: "Read me. Don’t read the other fellows."

Auden is right to be wary of poets’ propaganda. For example, a text like Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1965) reads in parts like a manifesto for his own poetry and for poetry like it, which is written in the diction of everyday speech. But his text also gives general psychological insight into the creative process. To take another example, Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry (1966) is not so much advocating the poetic style of its author, as defending poetry in general from charges, as old as Plato, that it is useless and even harmful. Poetics is more than just a vehicle for poets’ self-promotion. Indeed, not all poetic theorists have donned another cap as poets, Aristotle and J. S. Mill being examples.

If, on the one hand, we are to be wary of poets’ opinions about poetry, we should, on the other, be wary of the views of editors, critics and academics. For it is editors who have decided what has been published in books and magazines, and critics and academics who add to our thoughts about it. Collectively they have set the agenda for the debate about what is poetry. According to the institutional theory of art, a work becomes poetry, visual art, or music, only once it has been officially recognized by the art world through its publication, its inclusion in a gallery, its performance, or recording, or because it is the work of an artist already acknowledged as a poet, painter, sculptor, or composer. As a general rule, this theory is perhaps the most common test for poetry, but it entails many problems. For example, is a bad poem by A. Poet necessarily poetry just because he wrote it, or because it has been published, whilst a manuscript by A. Scribbler, as it fades away in an attic drawer, is excluded? Here the question “What is poetry?” is asking “What is good poetry?”, but are the critics who decide the canon correct? If taste varies, not only down the centuries and geographically, but also from individual to individual, can a consensus about what is and is not good poetry ever be reached?  Critics and academics cannot always agree amongst themselves, whilst the taste of an editor might be driven by the tradition of his magazine, or press, or by the market, as well as by whim.  Yet if we assume that critical judgments are not all relative, it must be possible to identify poetic principles.

There is a critical consensus that feeling is involved in poetry. Mill (in Ryan 1987: 103-4) says that “The object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions”. Here he is thinking of the reader’s point of view, but Wordsworth looks at it from the poet’s viewpoint, when he writes that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (1965: 246). Later he explains that poetry:

takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. (266) 

Larkin (1983: 79) says something similar: “I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/ felt”. Housman (1933: 12) notes that:

To transfuse emotion – not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer – is the peculiar function of poetry.

He sees poetry as “more physical than intellectual”, and when asked to define poetry relates that:

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. (ibid.: 46-7)

Describing those symptoms, he says that when he recalls a line of poetry he feels “a shiver down the spine”, or “a precipitation of water to the eyes”, or a feeling in which “The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach” (ibid.). Housman must have been exceptionally sensitive –his experience need not mean that we will all find strong physical symptoms attending poetry.  In any case, strong physical symptoms may indicate the presence of something other than poetry: a cold temperature, peeling onions, or heights could produce the same effects. Yet there is general agreement that poetry is characterized by feeling, even amongst ancient critics. Aristotle, when discussing tragic poetry, argues that it should induce catharsis in the audience, whereby they are purged of “pity and fear” (1965: 39). Horace notices the link between description and emotion: “Pathetic language is appropriate to the face of sorrow, and violent language to the face of anger” (1965: 82-3). Another critic who notes the place of emotion in poetry is Santayana (1957: 263):

The poet’s art is to a great extent the art of intensifying emotions by assembling the scattered objects that naturally arouse them. He sees the affinities of things by seeing their common affinities with passion.

But though poetry may be “the art of intensifying emotions”, the emotions expressed by the poet do not have to be highly personal. Indeed Eliot believed that injecting too much personal emotion into a poem disqualified it as poetry:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. (1975: 43) 

Eliot did believe that poetry involved emotion, but distinguished this emotion as:

Significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. (ibid.: 44)

In other words poetry should contain not a random outpouring of the writer’s emotion, but rather only such feeling as pertains to the poem as a whole. It is interesting to compare with this Kant’s idea (in Dickie 1997: 22) that judgments of beauty are disinterested, and therefore impersonal and universal. 

Poetry is not a mere record of the poet’s emotion, or indeed of his memories. Often the emotion and facts of a poem are not real, but imagined. According to Shelley (2002: 16), "Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be 'the expression of the imagination'."  Hazlitt (1998: 308-9) also puts imagination into the equation, when he writes that: 

The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it. 

Coleridge precedes his discussion of poetry in Biographia Literaria with his theory of primary and secondary imagination. In Chapter XIV he writes:

What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet’s own mind. (Coleridge 1979: 12)

In a tautological definition Coleridge sees poetry as the work of a poet, who is a highly imaginative writer who injects imagination into his poems. In Making, Knowing and Judging Auden (1956) refers to Coleridge’s discussion of the imagination and states, “I believe we are both trying to describe the same phenomena” (Auden 1956: 27). At the end of his lecture he concludes:

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. (ibid.: 33)

Wondering at a sight, or thought, sparks the poet’s imagination, which in turn inspires his poem.  Freud too links creative writing with imagination, arguing that the fantasies of writers are an adult form of childhood play, which has been repressed. (1972: 36-42)

Shelley (2002: 46) sees the insights of poets as important for humanity: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. He includes not only writers of poetry and other artists, but also all humanitarian reformers and teachers in the set of poets:

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. (ibid.: 18-19)

Here Shelley is adopting a neo-Platonism but he differs from Plato in an important respect.   Plato in Republic disparages poetry, arguing that poetry is a mere imitation of an imitation, three times removed from the “Forms”. In Book Ten he makes Socrates say:

We may assume, then, that all the poets from Homer downwards have no grasp of truth but merely produce a superficial likeness of any subject they treat, including human excellence. (Plato 1975: 429)

But whereas Plato divorces poetry from truth, and would not allow poets in his ideal republic because of this, Shelley adjusts Platonic metaphysics so that poets can apprehend what above Shelley calls "the beautiful and the true". Thus in Shelley’s view, since they can grasp truth, poets are the rulers Plato should have had in his republic: “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

We have seen that Shelley relates poetry to "the beautiful and the true". Although Plato argues that poetry is three times removed from the truth – an imitation of an imitation of the truth – Aristotle nevertheless values poetry above history because it is concerned with general truths:

For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts. (Aristotle 1965: 43-4)

Sidney echoes Aristotle’s point:

The historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine. (Sidney 1966: 32)

Sidney argues poetry is also more worthy of attention than philosophy, since whilst both teach morality, no one could "compare the philosopher in moving with the poet". (ibid.: 39) Poetry not only contains universal wisdom but inspires us to be moral.

Later Sidney also says that, although poets write fiction, they do not lie, since they do not present their fiction as real:

Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false. ... though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not. (ibid.: 52-3)

We find Wordsworth saying that “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative”. (Wordsworth 1965: 257) And Mill states that “Poetry, when it is really such, is truth” (Mill 1987: 106). Arnold too refers to “Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness”, and goes on to argue that “the substance and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness”. (Arnold 1969: 311) Leaving aside the comic and satirical, which can also be said to stem from observation of truths about characters and the human condition, we might agree with the way these historical critics have valued seriousness, truth and truthfulness in poetry, and we might add, too, admiration for the way much poetry embraces honesty, sincerity and authenticity. In the modern age it has been, and in some fringe circles it still is, fashionable to see truth only as relative and to privilege fracture in narrative and argument, but set against centuries of ideas about poetry, such comment can perhaps be seen as a cul-de-sac in critical thought.

Poetry imparts wisdom and can teach us moral truths. Aristotle says the poet must represent things “either as they were or are, or as they are said to be or seem to be,
or as they ought to be [my italics]”. (1965: 69) Horace argues that “Poets aim at giving either profit or delight, or at combining the giving of pleasure with some useful precepts for life”. (1965: 90) Sidney thinks poetry is an art of imitation “with this end, to teach and delight”. (1966: 25) Eliot thinks poetry communicates valuable understanding and broadens our minds:

beyond any specific intention which poetry may have ... there is always the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility. (1957: 18)

Wordsworth envisages “genuine poetry” as “In its nature well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and likewise important in the multiplicity and quality of its moral relations”. (1965: 272) And Shelley states that “Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb”. (2002: 24)  We even find among the sayings of Muhammad the idea that poetry can contain moral truths:

Some poetry is dressed in knowledge and art.
The truest words spoken by any poet are those of Labid: "Know that everything is vanity save God."
God hath treasures beneath the Throne, the keys whereof are the tongues of poets.
Some poetry containeth much wisdom. (in Dhingra 1959: 107)

A similar view is held by Yvor Winters in The Function of Criticism (1957), where he holds that the purpose of literature is to impart morality.

Perhaps because many critics have thought poetry teaches moral truths, many have also concluded poetry is useful. In the “Arts Council Poetry Survey” (1997) it was found that the general public perceived poetry as, amongst other things, “out-of-touch” and “irrelevant”. But many critics stress its relevance. Indeed, Marxist critics would say poetry’s main value lies in its ability to influence man and society with egalitarian sentiment. But it is not only Marxist critics who regard poetry as useful. Eliot argues that poetry is useful because it benefits language by preserving and developing it, and says:

We may say that the duty of the poet, as poet, is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve. (1957: 20)

Moreover, Eliot thinks that by preserving and developing language, poetry has a knock-on effect and benefits society in further ways:

in the long run, it makes a difference to the speech, to the sensibility, to the lives of all the members of a society, to all the members of the community, to the whole people, whether they read and enjoy poetry or not; even, in fact, whether they know the names of their greatest poets or not. (ibid.: 22)

Both the traditional messages and radical words of poetry spread and affect the thinking of society at large.

Heaney is particularly interesting on the usefulness of poetry.  As he says:

Professors of poetry, apologists for it, practitioners of it, from Sir Philip Sidney to Wallace Stevens, all sooner or later have to attempt to show how poetry’s existence at the level of art relates to our existence as citizens of society – how it is "of present use". (1990: 1)

Heaney’s answer is that poetry seeks redress against prevailing injustice by counterbalancing the scales and asserting the denied voice of protest:

The redress of poetry would consist rather in poetry’s renunciation of complexity and self-division and its embrace of one or other side of the question, without ambivalence. Its redress would be in the simple act of adding leverage to one or other arm of the scale ... This redress of poetry comes from its being a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances. (ibid.: 3-4)

Heaney understands the “redress” of poetry as “poetry’s instrumentality in adjusting and correcting the world’s imbalances”. (ibid.: 7) The poets he chooses as examples are voices of public or political protest, like Wilfred Owen and Mandelstam (ibid.: 4-5), or those like Walcott, Adrienne Rich, Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes, whose gender, race, social constituency, or other perspective, is not the same as that of “established canonical English literature” (ibid.: 7).  When reading Heaney’s lecture, it is not lost on the reader that Heaney, as a Republican, is celebrating the radical poetry of “the other”. It is ironic he did so as an establishment figure, Oxford’s Professor of Poetry. Yet Heaney is not simply backing the outsider, or supporting the underdog, but rather putting the case for poetry’s social and moral usefulness, because it can effect redress.

This definition of poetry as something transformative and weighty, its ability to effect redress, make us see anew, think twice, even be refreshed, calmer and more humane, could be said to be a cognitive behavioural value. For centuries poets and critics alike have recognized poetry’s mindfulness: its ideas and images, musicality and speech. Here I would like to conclude by reassessing the way we describe the value of poetry to us and suggest that we can borrow from contemporary psychology to see poetry as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for the soul and even Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)
 for our interactions with each other in society. For poetry has the mental values of enhancing concentration and cognitive ability, and as a habit involves regular time out in reading and writing, as well as the social aspect of workshops and groups. Poetry with its hopeful messages, calm breathing rhythms of iambic pentameter and meditative free verse can relax us. The spirited anapaests and comments of satire, parody and comedy can cheer us. The outpourings of a poem like Ginsberg’s “Howl (Part I)” (1972: 217-22) or Rita Ann Higgins’ “Some People” (2004: 336-7) can cathartically vent and purge us of negative feelings.

Poetry, I propose, has a value today both for individuals and society for the way it can help us to process dysfunctional responses and to emphasize and accentuate healthy responses, and for the way in which its positive humanism can enhance mindfulness and reinforce calm, non-aggressive rhetoric in our repertoire. Poetry helps rid us of negative thinking either by voicing it as such, so we can see our maladaptive mechanisms in perspective, or by reinforcing positive messages as models. One of my favourite poems, Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1995: 67), ends: “You must change your life”; it is this aspect of poetry, the way it can either blatantly exhort us to live better, or more often inspire us to, or both, that I propose we should prioritize in our value judgements about it. The best poetry can instil in our hearts an open and peaceful perspective.

I opened this review of canonical ideas with a female poet, Wislawa Szymborska, and will close with another, Louise Glück. In her essay, “On Impoverishment” (1999: 129-134), a graduation address at Williams College, she contrasts two of her poems and analyzes the state of mind she recalls behind each one. The first was written as the closing poem to a typescript and also preceded a long period of writer’s block and despond. Its value to Glück is only in its revelation of her impoverishment. But the other poem was written four years later when she was in a much better place in both spirit and situation, and she uses this as an example to show how poetry can express and enact an “all-seeing eye” (ibid.: 132) and a richer experience and focus. It is the way poetry reading and writing can help us make the shift from the former position to the latter – and the way, as Heaney hints, it can effect change in society – that I propose as the mindfulness of poetry. The central message of my fourth collection was precisely this positive shift and state of awareness:

May all of us keep each of us in mind
beyond this world, beyond the ends of time. (Wardle 2014: 9)

Today in books and broadcasts, writing and therapy, in schools and with the elderly, in hospitals and prisons, online and in performance, poetry now reaches a wider audience who can fit its wisdom, humanity and meditation into their busy lives.


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Sarah Wardle read Classics at Oxford and English at Sussex, where she gained her D.Phil..  She has four books, all from Bloodaxe: Fields Away (2003), Score! (2005), A Knowable World (2009) and Beyond (2014). In 1999 she won Poetry Review’s New Poet of the Year Award and her first book was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection. She has been poet-in-residence for Bedgbury National Pinetum, Tottenham Hotspur F.C., the British Council in Berlin and Transport for London at Embankment station, and has been Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Royal Holloway. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, The Spectator, The TLS, The Independent and The Guardian.  She has broadcast her work on radio and television.  She teaches Advanced Poetry at Morley College and is Lecturer in Poetry at Middlesex University.