It has been a quarter century since I began writing poetry. I have spent untold hours not just writing hundreds of pages of verses but also contemplating the purpose of poetry. Almost two decades ago I began composing essays on my theories concerning the nature and objective of poetry as a literary art. Having recently read Bernard O’Donoghue’s Poetry in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, I was inspired to revisit the question of what poetry is meant to do. As with all forms of art, poetry serves a purpose, it has a meaning, there is a reason for it, for why we write it. There is, I believe, a universal reason and, naturally, a multitude of reasons as to why we write poetry.
At its core, poetry is an instrument; it is the implement we use to make our voice heard, to individualize and separate us from the masses. I believe poetry descends from music and dance, which are more closely entwined with the divine, the sacred. My perspective is that all art is both imitative and creative, finding its originality in the singular voices that produce it. I differ from Plato in his conservative view and, in my eyes, obnoxious distaste for the arts as being an imitation of an imitation; something twice removed from the Forms. The Forms, for one, are too impersonal for me, and do not point to unity. It is a great irony that, for such a conservative voice as Plato’s, his philosophical foundation in the concept of the Forms is ultimately multiple rather than unitary, when all conservatism struggles toward unity through conformity, endeavoring to structure and enact a sound system of government whose purpose is in the law and order it seeks to provide for the security of its citizens; it is this that Plato is haunted by when it comes to art, that there are countless minds that engage in the act of creation, and so innumerable ideas and voices vying to be recognized. But I digress.
All art is imitative in the sense that it copies the sacred in its infinitude and multiplicity. It imitates the divine by mimicking this nature. The divine is explored and expressed, put on display, in a work of art. Since the sacred is in truth indefinable, ineffable, it is the purpose of art, including poetry, to search that same divinity within the mind and soul of man and make it concrete for the world. How each artist and poet does this is where the creative aspect of art comes into play. Romantic that I am, the imagination is the means through which humans transport the immanent transcendent into the material world, giving it a tangible presence. Truly, creative artists are Prometheus, bringing the fire that is the divine down to the corrupt and forsaken earth, and often punished by the ignorant and jealous for being, in their eyes, so presumptuous as to claim to know what the essence of this Godhead is. I for one do not count the actions of creative artists as being anything of the kind. And yet this leads me to a primary question concerning the nature of the poet: Is the poet himself divine? Or merely a conduit, a conductor of the spirit and imaginative fire of the immeasurable consciousness that is the divine?
In my view, all humanity is sacred, holy, divine, what have you. But it is the creative artist, whose mind and soul are more open to the invisible, to the spirit that permeates and circumscribes the cosmos, and, as such, is itself the cosmos, who is a direct link to the transcendent. The poet and other creative artists are the tuning forks of God; we vibrate when touched by the spirit, and this vibration produces the works birthed from the crucible of the imagination. We are, in a manner, elemental; rooted in a vision that blinds us and liberates us in the blinding. When this happens, we are Paul on his way to Damascus; we are struck down to the ground of our souls and made wordless by the incandescent light that floods us in a vast darkness. This darkness is the presence of the divine itself and can only be experienced as such when we are touched; the material and natural are stripped away, dissolved in this falling night. But in this darkness we are filled with the eternal, with an indescribable knowing that can only be made manifest with the tools and materials of this flawed, fallen world. What we make is, in a way, not really up to us; I myself do not believe we have any choice in the artistic vocation we find ourselves in; the price of being the instrument of Eternity inside Time is that we have no free will, no say in the matter, in regards to the type of artist we become. I also believe that we have no control over when we are pressed by the spirit to produce our art, that it is a blessing and a curse to be both creator and created, and that only with our death are we set free from our bondage to the act of creation, to our predestined vocation. In short, the impotence of being an artist is both ecstatic and agonizing.
But, finally, to return to the question of the purpose of poetry. Essentially there are two questions: Does poetry have “a duty of public utility and responsibility”? And is “its primary function to delight rather than to instruct”?
To take the first: I believe poetry is both a personal act and a sacred one. Poetry brings the divine to the surface, into the world, from the depths of the immanent experience of it in the soul. Poetry, in being a personal act, is also a political act. To raise one’s voice, to be heard, to assert one’s presence and identity in the flux of things, is a highly charged act, as it marks a place in the movement of life. Poetry is an anchor in the present, and if preserved, becomes timeless, offering a moment of connection in the new present to the past; the universal becomes testified to as transcendent in the act of this reaching back, this returning to a time and place long gone. Poetry, then, is an act of memory, of memorializing. A poem is a ghost, a revenant, of prior experience, of thoughts and feelings, of a personal history.
Poetry also often chronicles historical events of a national or international importance, recording the poet’s own understanding of the moment, or the nation’s as a whole, the latter often serving as a piece of propaganda. So yes, I believe that poetry, when its subject is a direct political matter, should serve the public good by primarily being a piece of dissent and criticism. If it is written to commemorate a moment in history, it should do so without a nationalistic tone, but rather simply memorialize the moment. Poetry, as all art, should never serve the state’s political agenda, for the latter’s objectives are usually slanted toward an obscene gain for the few rather than the many. Poetry should not be called on to serve the state but rather the people, to defend them and act as a critique, a bullhorn of the most provocative dissent, of the political apparatus as well as of the sociocultural norms of the nation.
In regards to the second question, I am always fascinated by those who, as with so many questions in life, think that it has to be either-or and that it can’t be both. The idea that it has to be one or the other is destructive in that it reinforces the narrow mind-set we are raised with, because the goal of all institutions is conformity so that the structure imposed on society will remain stable and orderly. Art, by the very nature of the beast, is contra conformity; it exists to question and criticize, to be the earth-shaker of the stagnant mind and dormant soul. So, I believe that poetry’s function is to delight and instruct. Why does it have to be otherwise? When I write poetry, I write what I feel inside me; the feelings and ideas must be fleshed in metaphor and evocative language. As I have explained elsewhere, I believe poetry should make one feel deeply, react to its ideas, and become agents of action in accord with the sentiment of the piece. The primary function and goal of all art is to make the people warriors of perpetual revolutionary change.
When a poem is a masterpiece it delights and instructs at once. Since there are myriad voices in the world, each poem is different, has a distinct reason for being written, even by the same poet; that is the beauty of art—it captures the infinite variety of the divine because we ourselves are infinite vessels of the divine. To pigeonhole art and poetry into serving a singular function or purpose is to clip its wings and leave it to its demise in the suffocating muck of the mundane and the merely earthly. All art, all poetry, is called on to take the world as it is and transform it into the way it should be. All art is a vocation of transfiguration. All art seeks to unite the immanent with the transcendent and explode the frames of the spirit and the flesh, ushering them into a higher, more perfect union.