When I accepted this residency, I initially had no idea what I wanted to do. Narrowing down the possibilities for a creative project is daunting for many writers and artists. I was met with the usual bout of existentialism – asking myself, what actually is the point of poetry?
It sounds like giving up, but it’s not – I ask with genuine curiosity. I can’t feel deeply about anything without questioning its depth to the smallest level, bearing it down like grains of sand. (Perhaps this isn’t healthy – but it takes me to some interesting places.) And poetry is good friends with those two things – curiosity, and feeling deeply. So I followed the question.
What Even is Poetry?
“Whilst words are useful, they do have their limitations.”
Simply put – poetry is an arrangement of words. There is often emphasis on different things – the sound of the words, the way they look, the careful meanings crafted with them. But it’s always words. We use words to get across certain ideas, images, feelings to other people (or just to ourselves). This is often achieved using different metres, forms, poetic devices, and rhyme schemes, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.
Whilst words are useful, they do have their limitations. It’s no secret that the way we think is shaped by the language we use. Some human languages are better equipped than others to talk about things like directions, societal structures, or mathematics. I often wonder about other animals, their thoughts unmoulded by words – I wonder, how much closer to the abstract are they than us?
“We trick ourselves into thinking our lives are anything other than the abstract chaos that they are.“
Words serve to organise and group concepts, and to communicate them to each other. We know the ancient Greeks had many words for love, where we have only one. Similarly, many kinds of loneliness may be grouped into one ‘loneliness’, many kinds of fear become only ‘fear’. We talk to each other about colours, all the while ignoring the fact that we may be experiencing different colours entirely. There is no way to truly share those things, no matter how close we think we become. In using words, we trick ourselves in to thinking our lives are anything other than the abstract chaos that they are. But they are still our best shot. They help to get us the closest we can to experiencing the inside of another’s mind.
Yeah, But Why?
“Maybe it’s like putting little footpath signs in the sprawling fungal network of our imaginations.”
Maybe part of the answer to the question, What is the Point of Poetry, is – Does There Need to Be One? Does poetry need to be for anything? I think the great beauty of being alive is being able to wander around making things without having to come up with a reason for them, to let them be without justifying them. And here’s where I definitely see merit in the capabilities of poetry as a vehicle for connection, enlightenment, or exchange. Even if we don’t share our writing with anyone, it can still foster connections within ourselves, or the feelings in our bodies, or the weird world around us. Shaping thoughts into words can help us navigate them. Maybe it’s like putting little footpath signs in the sprawling fungal network of our imaginations.
“Sharing is fundamental to humans as social animals.”
But a beautiful thing is that we often do share them. Most creative people have the urge to share what they have made – sharing is fundamental to humans as social animals. What we produce, be it words, visual mark-making, or otherwise, is a form of communication. When we create and share a poem with words, we are saying, here, this is what I have felt/noticed, and now you can feel/notice it too, using words to engage the sensory joys of the mind and body in a way that relates to my own. Through poetry we share a small piece of our existence with another, and it becomes less lonely.
Sharing is Caring
In the spirit of sharing, I have asked a number of poets, writers, facilitators and poetry fans to share something with me – something small, an observation of something – and to also tell me what they think the point of poetry is. I’ll be creating something with these responses in the next couple of weeks – a franken-poem if you like, full of noticings and sharings, and it will hopefully grow into a fuller answer to the question: what is the point of poetry?