What do we actually do with poetry?

Here’s another question that I’d love to get some responses on. I’ve been thinking a bit of late (between classes, walking to work, in the passenger seat of the car etc) I’ve been thinking about what it is we actually do with poetry, as  individuals (and also as a society)?

What is it for? What do we do with it? With a single poem, with a collection of them? What more than read them? Are poetry books lent, sold on, donated, cut up? Are they inspiration, starting points for our own work? Do they have overt political uses? Do you quote lines to make a point? What can we actually do with ink on paper? Or words on the screen?

And how often do we share them – and if our friends and family are not interested in poetry – would we show a co-worker a poem and say, ‘you’ll like this’ the same way we might a song or a band? Or a film? Poetry still seems to be in the private sphere somewhat, or at least, when it is consumed, anyway.

Certainly it feeds my mind, and lifts me. But poetry is also something that I have as one of the parts of my identity. I probably use it a little like a badge, and without shouting from the rooftops ‘I’m a poet, damn it!’ I will mention it if asked. So one of the things I do with it, is maintain an identity.

So how about you?

15 thoughts on “What do we actually do with poetry?

  1. This is such a big question, not just the multiple parts to the question – simply ‘what do we do with poetry?’ Immediately I thought of the famous Auden quote too often taken out of context, the popular quote is ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, in its full context it reads ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives’. This, of course puts a totally different spin on the quote. I like this quote so much I stole it! I wrote ‘for money men may reign in their own lifetime / but art exists for ever after’.

    But, it is true – poetry, by itself, makes nothing happen – but it can inspire greatness.

    I don’t often call myself a poet but like it when others refer to me as such, although I embarrass easily! However, I do show my poetry around to work colleagues as well as quoting the poetry of others. The ‘poet’ remains an enigma, people are taken aback when poetry is discussed, they only remember the poems that they couldn’t understand in school, whenever I get the opportunity to quote contemporary poetry in casual conversation I do so in a small attempt to turn some minds, and I think it does to some degree.

    I could go on, I’ve barely touched the essence of your questions, but I don’t want to take up the whole page. I look forward to follow up comments, then I’ll be back – I think the comments could form an interesting essay for Meanjin (?)

    • Great work, Mark. And I know, it was a little mean of me – huge question indeed.

      Yes, poetry might not be the same as a bomb, but inspiration is surely more potent.

      That’s great – what sort of responses to you get when you share it around? I remember those sorts of conversations about poetry, limited to recollections of negative experiences. And a shame there is a wealth of that.

      No sweat, Mark – take a page, take two! I’ve been meaning to try and survey a wide range of poets and readers on the issue, it’s a big task that I hope to one day try and tackle. And it probably has the potential to be thesis-length stuff!

      I don’t think it’s a new idea to suggest that we use poetry, as writers, to mediate our world. And perhaps readers do too, just coming at the process from a different side. But there must be something else to that mediation, just not sure what it is.

  2. yes Mark, teke two.

    Ash, this is wonderful stimulating post. I will think of it the whole day in work today.

    As for me, on the personal level – poetry is inspiration (I think I barely write on times I am not reading) and some kind of a healer – it can give me a wake up call, show me that I am not alone in this world or simply bring something of higher quality into my daily-life and as such is perhaps a kind of soul keeper.
    I cannot call myself a poet, perhaps only when I get a book done and out.

    I am trying to take more courage lately with bringing poetry in on certain conversations (and am very sad that, unlike Mark, I cannot recall good enough to quote stuff while talking) and that goes either to speak about or share a lovely poem I have read. Most people do “run away” when they here it but some (and one out of sixteen is good enough to my count) do take interest; there is one friend who, after several month of reading me secretly on the web, started coming to me with new poets she found out and liked. That was a great feeling.

    For the public sphere I guess, for now, poetry will remain something to do with school or, a bit like western classical music, something of higher sphere which was good before, is unreachable and any way not being done so good theses days – sad as it has its powers both for the individual and for the group.

    will be back to read some more views..

    • Glad it got you through a day at work, Dhyan!
      I’m a bit the same – my poetry suffers when I don’t read much (like now, haven’t read or written much in a few months) and it is quite an unpleasant feeling. But probably a good break.

      Yes, I agree – poetry definitely has powers for the group & the individual. Usually, I’d like to think, to add individuals to groups.

  3. Reading Mark’s response, I couldn’t help quoting Bukowski – Poetry is what happens when nothing else can. This has a real truth for me… when life is at its best and worst (and everything in between) there is always poetry (for me at least). What do I do with it… well it has become many things: the epicentre of a community I engage with regularly, a way to see the world (figuratively and literally)… I guess the most important thing I do with it is help to clarify my interactions with the world and my deeper self.

    • ‘Poetry…when nothing else can’ perfect, Graham. I think it has the clarifying function for a lot of writers, and you’ve articulated it really well I think.

      And what a powerful tool for creating/maintaining a community or group – which I think SpeedPoets is a perfect example of.

  4. I like this ‘what do we do with poetry’ as an alternative to the tired old question of ‘why’. ‘What’ opens up the idea that poetry (art) is functional. In that vein one of my favourite quotes is Leo Bascaglia’s ‘Your talent is God’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift back to God’. You can substitute ‘God’ for whatever … the meaning’s the same. Terrific posts.

    • Thanks, Jane – that’s what I’d hoped – I think we need to look at it more from a functional point of view. And another great quote – I’m getting so much out of everyone’s responses to this one.

      And if poetry (and art in general) does have a range of functional purposes, an idea I think we’re all supporting, then I think rambling on about such functions is, of course, a great way to understand them and bring them from the sub-conscious to the conscious, and thus use the given art-form more.

  5. For me, reading poetry is about new ways of seeing – it teaches me about how others view the world, what fires the imagination of others, what inspires their creativity, what they are passionate about; writing it is something that helps me make sense of the world and to test how others see it, and I do love it both when they come up with a completely different interpretaion, as well as one close to mine. The only person in my family with whom I regularly swap poems (via snail-mail) is my 82-year-old aunt who is a very talented poet – our styles are completely different but we appreciate each other’s writing. I have given a handful of close friends access to my blog but only one reads it regularly – the others think I am completely mad…

    • That’s a shame! But I guess the madness of poetry is what keeps us doing it, huh?

      It’s pretty impressive that you correspond with poetry through snail-mail. But it’s interesting to have another communicative function for poetry discussed, that of maintaining family-links, which must be wonderful for you, bluebee, wish I had something similar arriving in the mail box

    • Oh, me too! Would that be wonderful, to have a good press and the funds to print, promote and pay poets. Quite a dream, Phillip, and I think about it every now and then. Watch out Tattslotto

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