So what's so good about poetry?
Every now and then (if you're lucky) a piece of literature - be it a novel or a poem - will come along and shake your heart; it'll rock your world. And, I swear, your perspective of yourself and the space around you, will never be the same again.
I came across such a poem, powerful piece that really touched me, when I was at secondary school. I was no more than 13 or 14 when a very attractive young trainee-teacher came to teach us English for a term and read us W.B. Yeats', She Weeps for the Cloths of Heavens:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Now I don't know whether it was her tone - a lovely genteel accent that sort of juxtaposed beautifully in an inner city world of my comprehensive schooling - or Yeats words per se that moved me to something close to love. Whatever it was, I kind of felt something stirring in my teenage heart, a sort of awakening at the sheer magic of the words and what they could do. I remember going away after the lesson and re-reading the poem again and again until I knew it by heart. Even today whenever I teach Yeats, I always recite that poem because it takes me back to that time when I first fell in love with poetry - or developed a crush on a woman who was way out of my league!
And that's the essence of some words, put together or poetically arranged in such away that they linger in your spirit level, almost giving you another dimension to yourself as a human being. Sometimes they help you to 'see better' - bring you closer to your limitations. But, more often than not, they give you an awareness of your possibilities - nothing is beyond your reach.
Now there are people who say I don't like poetry 'cause I don't get it!. The irony is that sometimes they're the very same people who recite or quote sections from songs or better still, holy books. And they will act as if the quote said it all: end of discussion. Or they'll sing a line or two from song or a hymn like to make a point:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Now, I ask you, what are those - those lines - if they're not poetic in some way. They're beautiful words because they're original; they capture a thought, an idea in a fresh way that make them memorable. Holy texts are poetic no matter whether you consider them as the actual word of God or the product of wordsmiths sitting around a camp fire.
The thing is that poetry matters - all kinds of poetry, not just the stuff we have to read at school as part of the National Curriculum. To say that I hate poetry because you had to suffer the ordeal at trying to grasp the meaning of difficult language is like saying I hate all people under five feet tall! It's ludicrous to state such things because it's limiting and shows your inability to connect with complexity. Now surely that is not what you should broadcast to the rest of the world. Instead wouldn't it be better if you said, I don't like the stuff of Shakespeare's sonnets, or Milton's epic poetry or the meta-physical poetry of 17th century but I do like the sufi poetry or mysticism of Kabir, Tagore or Gibran. Or failing that, you could say I'm not generally partial to poetry but I do like the nonsense poetry and/or limericks of Milligan, the stuff of light-heartedness and frivolity. Now that's a far cry from simply saying I hate poetry! and brushing the whole poetry genre/form aside as being insignificant.
The point is that there is such a colourful array of poetry of all types, in all kinds of linguistic shades and tones.
But there's another important reason why poetry matters in our world. Arthur Scargill's father used to sleep with a dictionary because he believed that words used properly are a powerful tool to mobilise people and politics. Everyone should learn words.
And there's a certain truth in that. Poetry is used in all aspects of our lives, it's all over the place - on billboards, in advertising, in songs, in politics as rhetoric, in films, in news and the dissemination of information - and, dare I say it, in everyday conversation. Even this article, the way I'm putting it together to make a case for poetry, is using the tools and techniques associated with that form. Poetry can be powerful and because it's powerful, it can be political.
Poetry is a voice of dissent, a voice of the people who feel they're unheard, displaced, forgotten. It's a tool for those who want to challenge the world in which we live, take on the mass of conventional ideas we get used to in our daily existence. In the words of Craig Raine, it defamiliarizes our familiarity.
So next time you're having a chat about poetry with someone, think about why you're so hostile to words, the very language you're happy to quote in other context. Why does poetry fill you with dread and boredom? It's the very stuff that gave enlightenment to many of the gurus, prophets and mystics. They recited language, the mantra, day in and day out to create a spiritual epiphany. They wanted to connect with a higher being, what some refer to as God, what some poets call the Spirit of the universe and what the Romantics referred to as Nature
Poetry was, to some extent, the metaphorical vehicle for that journey guiding our souls away from the material world to that serene state of nirvana like this piece of Punjabi verse:
Bhul na jaye o maan meriya
Motiya te mandir dekh ke
(Do not get lost, oh soul of mine,
Gazing at these pearly walls)
Roshan Doug will be reading from his new collection of poems, What light is light... at the University of Birmingham, School of Education, Room G39, 6pm- 7.30
Monday 21st November 2011.
RSVP to email@example.com