All the recent media hullabaloo in Britain about poetry has revealed much more nervousness and discomfort about the cardinal art form than genuine understanding and love. The general assumption seems to be that poetry is a good thing and we should all have more of it in our lives. But what if poetry is not a thing at all? Or if, as Robert Penn Warren suggested: “Poetry is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see, and what we see is life.” Or what if poetry is not something we can harmlessly add to our store of pleasures – it is such fun! – but a scourer and excoriator, killing 99 per cent of all known hypocrisies?

I recalled some comments made to me recently at a party by an arts producer working for a national broadcaster; “I hate poetry,” said this young man and, to make matters clearer: “I don’t believe in free expression.” For all the rebarbativeness of his remarks, I felt afterwards he was being more helpful and honest than all the bland promoters of poetry, or purveyors of a product called poetry that is not the real thing.

It might be better to ask ourselves why, on the whole, we hate poetry – that is to say why we ruthlessly marginalise it and exile it to a cold place of almost total neglect – than to utter dishonest platitudes about how great it is. That at any rate was the approach of the American poet and environmental activist Muriel Rukeyser when she came to write her passionate manifesto, The Life of Poetry.

Rukeyser begins her book in the most dramatic circumstances: a boat full to the gunwales of Republican refugees is leaving Spain, by night, as the civil war intensifies. The bombing of Guernica has just taken place. People discuss the horrors they have seen, the horrors to come. Then a voice speaks out of the darkness: “And poetry – among all this – where is there a place for poetry?”

That is the question Rukeyser sets out to answer but she begins with a long section called “The Resistances”. In a primarily scientific and technological age poetry is resisted because it asks awkward questions of a kind that science and technology would rather avoid. It asks questions about wholeness and integration, about what it is to be a complete human being, one who feels as well as calculates. “Poetry, above all, is an approach to the truth of feeling,” says Rukeyser with admirable simplicity.

Poetry’s championing of wholeness and emotional truth comes up against formidable obstacles. Rukeyser lists them: “The ruling out of emotion, over-specialisation, aversion to the disclosure of oneself to oneself, neurotic embarrassment and coldness, contempt for others.” In a technocratic society, “we make the specialised skills and expressions our goals …We think in terms of property, weapons, secrets; we exalt the means …Less and less do we imagine ourselves and believe ourselves.” She sums up the situation with none of the blandness we have heard in recent weeks: “I must say that [poetry] has no acknowledged place in American life today.”

This seems to me a good start. Poetry is up against it in all sorts of ways. Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives. But what could it do for us, if we would allow it?

Rukeyser was a socialist and, therefore, an optimist and she did believe in the power of poetry. But she also lived through the Spanish civil war and the second world war and could see that poetry could not intervene directly to halt carnage. Poetry’s power is a preparatory and paradigmatic power – as Rukeyser puts it: “We will not be saved by poetry. But poetry is the type of the creation in which we may live and which will save us.” Or in other words, we will only be saved if we gather all our intensity, “Roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up into one ball”, in Marvell’s great words, to face our current crisis as whole human beings.

While returning to Rukeyser, I have also been rereading one of the novels that has impressed me most in the past five years, The Poet by Yi Mun-yol. It tells the true story of the 19th-century Korean poet Kim Pyong-yon, grandson of a powerful politician branded a traitor, forced to live his life on the margins of society.

Yi Mun-yol differs from Rukeyser in suggesting that it is always, at all times and in all places, the fate of poetry and the poet to exist outside the mainstream. “Not all non-conformists are poets, but all poets are non-comformists,” he writes. Even the poets who show none of the usual signs of non-conformism “are bound to deviate from the norm at least in the use of language”. Living as a vagabond and a beggar, sceptical of yet also caught up in spasms of political revolt and idealism, Kim remains true to his vocation and, thus, faithful to the truth of feeling.

harry.eyres@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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