What am I doing when I write poetry?

So. At times, things serendipitously drift together, like a twigs on a stream floating into a transient raft. This week, definitions of poet were eddying past each other.

“But look there!” she resumed. “Do you see a boat with one man in it—a green and white boat?”
“Yes; quite well.”
“That’s a poet.”
“I thought you said it was a bo-at.”
“Stupid pet! Don’t you know what a poet is?”
“Why, a thing to sail on the water in.”
“Well, perhaps you’re not so far wrong. Some poets do carry people over the sea. But I have no business to talk so much. The man is a poet.”
“The boat is a boat,” said Diamond.
“Can’t you spell?” asked North Wind.
“Not very well.”
“So I see. A poet is not a bo-at, as you call it. A poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it too.”
“Ah! now I know. Like the man in the sweety-shop.”
“Not very. But I see it is no use. I wasn’t sent to tell you, and so I can’t tell you.”

That’s George MacDonald At the Back of the North Wind (chapter 5). Noting, but leaving aside, the masculinity of the definition, I wonder if ‘being glad of something’ is a reason many people would own up to for writing poetry? I think in MacDonald’s case it probably was true: he spent his adult llfe trying to convince people God was out to get them, but in the best way possible.

Then, nudging up against MacDonald is Charles Reznikoff:

What Reznikoff liked about courtroom testimony, he said, was that what matters is the facts of the case, what the witness saw and heard, not the witness’s feelings about, or interpretations of, those facts. It was his ideal for poetry. He often cited some lines from the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai (which he found in A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang): ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’ His aim in Testimony was to create a ‘mood or feeling’ by the ‘selection’ and ‘arrangement’ of the facts, as well as by the ‘rhythm of the words’.
(Eliot Weinberger. The Poet at the Automat. London Review of Books. Vol. 37 No. 2. 22 January 2015. pages 15-16. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n02/eliot-weinberger/poet-at-the-automat but full text for subscribers only.)

First, that is quite a chain: I am quoting Weinberger, quoting Reznikoff, quoting Graham, quoting Wei T’ai. Secondly, I’m not surprised: Wei T’ai was on to something. Talking about or writing down your feelings is odd: it’s a mad person on a train who insists you have to know everything about them. But expressing something which builds in them a sense of your anger (at a very specific object), or your joy (at a very specific thing), that is worth doing. R G Collingwood writes of conveying the emotional charge rather than a feeling: it is the same thing.

It is also (and here I have turned a corner and taken myself by surprise) part of what MacDonald was getting at (it is, at times, difficult to be entirely clear about what MacDonald is getting at): you don’t make other people glad by telling them to be glad, there needs to be a thing to convey that gladness.

So. That’s what I’m doing when I’m writing poetry. I might not be a very good poet, but, as Chesterton wrote (somewhere in The Napoleon of Notting Hill):

Just as a bad man is still a man, so a bad poet is still a poet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s