Thoughts on The Use of Poetry

[Thanks to T. S. Eliot]

What are poets good for? The 20th Century is not sure. Eliot thinks that by rights a poet should be useful: he ought to guard the language against becoming barbaric; and that he ought to be entertaining. But the poet must also, as Eliot puts it, “make us from time to time a little more aware . . .”

March 6, 1950, Cover story on T.S. Eliot, Time

In 1950, no one was thinking of the 21st Century and the permanent changes in society that would exist: the Internet, social media, texting replacing letter writing, changes not only in language but in the literary use of language: “flash” poetry and fiction, poetry “slams” instead of readings, the proliferation of electronic literary journals with contents that electronically appeared and disappeared by the whim of the webmaster.

Certainly, our language has been enriched by dozens (if not hundreds) of new words, but it may have been equally barbarized by truncation: a proliferation of anagrams for a world of abbreviated text containers such as cell phone messaging and twitters, a savage new shorthand that relies on phonemes rather than morphemes for meaning (“u kan c me l8r”). In online communications, there is barely a distinct written language now: it is little more than a recording of the sound of language.

I may be a dinosaur in my reverence for language, but I’m an angry dinosaur who prefers the printed page to the electronic one, the conventions of syntax and diction to their destruction (I will always type ‘you’ rather than ‘u’; I believe in the value of complete sentences and the correct use of semicolons), and the pleasure of discursive writing to telegraphic prose.  I take pleasure and enjoyment in the journey of “getting to the point.”  The road to the destination should be at least as delightful as the destination itself.  All of this, I hope, prevents our language from becoming barbaric and in remaining entertaining, as Eliot would wish.

Now, to awareness. In his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” in Homage to John Dryden, Eliot identifies a “unification of sensibility” by which he meant a fusion of thought and feeling, what he called a “sensuous apprehension of thought.”  This idea, I think, he distilled more clearly in his essay “The Social Function of Poetry,” in On Poetry and Poets.  He says:

…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. In expressing what other people feel he is also changing the feeling by making it more conscious; he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore teaching them something about themselves.

Thus does Eliot tell us that the true purpose of poetry is to reveal to us ourselves, as we perhaps had not previously known us, to enhance and expand our understanding of who we are as humans.

            Poetry can inform, teach, entertain, but true poetry must also touch us; it is this sensuality which distinguishes poetry from other literary genres.  And because Eliot so clearly understood this and continually—in his essays and his poetry—reiterated this idea, I have no end of admiration for him.

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