There are a number of reasons for writing poetry, and alas they are not all good; for not all poetry is good, and indeed some ‘poetry’ is not poetry at all. This is not to denigrate anyone’s effort, but you don’t want to pay for a gold ring and get fobbed off with gold-painted lead. Usually non-poetry is written because the reason or motive behind writing it is wrong. I am excited myself by good reasons to write poetry, and groan when I encounter the wrong reason.

To deal with the negative first: the bad reason for writing poetry, which is really a reason to not write it, is the ego. Poetry written from and by the ego, pure and simple. This is bad because the ego cannot write poetry, and when it does it subverts it, and puts in place an ersatz product which deceives, much like a medicine or a food which actually in the long term poisons.

The ego wants to write because it perceives that poetry is status-laden and a way to the prizes that it seeks; one crucial prize being immortality – the idea that life is short but art is long, and so there is some perpetuation of its own existence through the glory of words. Quite apart from that, the immediate credibility that being a poet bestows on anyone so recognised is well worth the ego’s investment of time and trouble – and self-deception. Poets are creators, makers, prophets, visionaries, men and women ahead of their time; those with a deep insight into the nature of reality, philosophers, and those who are wise and emotionally perceptive. And so we could go on – and even in the West, this still holds true.

Poetry from the ego can be difficult to spot because of its variety, but there are three major classifications. First, there is pure doggerel: rhymed couplets of a banal variety written by someone who has never read more than six poems yet thinks they can write poetry because ‘poetry rhymes’. The ego is demonstrated in the first place in their thinking they can write at all without any knowledge or study of any kind. Their work never improves – McGonagall -like they continue to pour out volumes of the stuff on any occasion.

The second type does study and know poetry but is limited to versification; this can be highly skilled, very entertaining and enjoyable in itself. But it is not actually pure poetry because of its source: the ego. The ego likes constructing clever words, just as one might like doing a crossword puzzle. Occasionally, this can astonish, but it is not poetry because it does not come from poetry’s source – the Muse, the inner psyche, where order is not ordered because a deeper order is at play. And we realise it is not true poetry because we do not ‘feel’ it – it cannot stab itself into our being and become part of who we are; for the Muse arrests the reader as well as the poet.

Third, and arguably most dangerous of all, is the type of poetry that really does get mistaken for real poetry. It’s faddish – it latches on to movements and cultural groundswells – and so always appear ‘relevant’ and of the moment and contemporary. Currently, it’s ‘post-modern’, post-feminist, post-name-your-ism. Often it’s populated by professors of literature and academics who specialise in jargon and self-reflexivity; and merely writing unstructured, self-reflexive, sardonic, obscurely allusive doodlings is enough to show one is a poet. But all these creations are non-creations, which nobody much reads now, and will not read fifty or a hundred years hence. But the delusion is strong, and so are the cultural imperatives that feed it – behind such ugly poetry (lines, actually) is a negative and cynical philosophy of life, for the ego likes nothing better than to be superior.

But to turn from this, what are two positive reasons for writing poetry? The first primary reason to write poetry is to heal; oneself first of all, and others secondarily, if they are able to read your words and take strength from, and identify with, your situation. Healing and poetry have been soul mates from the beginning: the god Apollo was the god of healing and the father of the Nine Muses of poetry, and specifically, inspiration.

We need to bear in mind that there are three fundamental desires of the human spirit, or soul if you will: the desire for meaning, for truth, and for beauty. And these three intangible concepts are not isolated systems or mutually exclusive; at their greatest moments all three are present in the greatest works of art and poetry, and they interact with each other. A simple example would be looking at a stupendous scene of nature: we are overwhelmed by its beauty perhaps in the first place, but oftentimes we also sense that that beauty stems from a deep meaning or purpose in the heart of things and truth about its reality.

For now, if we consider the primary reason of healing for writing poetry, then it is clear that we write in that way for meaning and truth, and that the beauty – the sheer art of poetry – is less evident and important. (In fact it will be the focus on the beauty that constitutes our second primary reason.)

So, writing poetry in order to heal oneself – how is this possible? One way of approaching this is to go in reverse and ask ourselves why we are sick? In dysfunctional families two conditions always appertain. First, the expression of what one truly feels is always forbidden; your own feelings must be subordinated to the feelings and welfare of others. This is particularly true and pernicious when one is a very young child and a parent or parents severely stricture, and so eventually prevent, the child from saying what he or she feels. It is unacceptable, for example, to dislike one’s sibling, or to express anger towards some obnoxious relation who provokes one regularly; and one consequence will be the parent induces guilt and shame in the child for such feelings. The result of all this is a disconnect between what you think and what you feel – and what you feel is invalidated, which means you are invalidated.

Alongside this, dysfunctional families always have ‘secrets’: these are things – usually to do with the (mis-)behaviour of family members – that cannot be spoken about. The family wants to appear normal, like other people, like other families – as ‘good’ as them – and so there is an unwritten code that this must be never discussed. In short, there is a suppression of the truth of what is really going on; another disconnect in other words.

What has this to do with the healing of poetry? Everything! What poetry is doing is providing a mechanism in which the self can express freely, truthfully and accurately what it has heretofore repressed or kept only in the conscious mind – the conscious mind being limited and furthermore a source of anxiety. This is not easy; the more clogged the conscious mind is with suppressing feelings, repressing truth, and trying to counter the meaninglessness that results from such activities, then the more it is likely – if it is writing at all – to resort to cliché and banality to express itself. However, poetry is a discipline – given the time and the silence to go deep, and given line breaks and the freedom to experiment with language as a condition of the art, people can truly come to express themselves, sometimes for the first time, and then on and ever in real terms in their lives.

Poetry, then, becomes the medium for meaning and for truthfulness, and this is cathartic. It washes away negative emotional and sometimes negative spiritual residue. Furthermore, it is compelling, because the poet has become an author – a writer is an author, and an author is an authority; it is the same root word. We are becoming the authors of our own lives; this is empowering and simultaneously energising. And as we read our own words – if they are words of meaning and truth – we can believe them, and so we begin that slow process of hypnotising ourselves into the good and better life that is possible. A life where we are healed and healing. The words on the page – the poem – become the record of our journey, and what a journey that is for all of us: to find meaning and to experience truth in our essential being – that is healing.

But I must also discuss poetry as art, which is as much as to say, the expression of the truly beautiful. People write from their ego and produce non-poetry; people write to heal themselves and this is good and meaningful; and thirdly, and more famously, people write poetry because they write poetry and produce art. And a number key factors come together when this happens.

First, the third desire – for beauty – comes into play (in every sense of the word). The writing is an aesthetic, an art, and a certain skill and knowledge comes into its construction which seeks to render meaning as it truly is: namely, beautiful. It is not a ‘gloss’ on meaning – that would be versification – but it reveals the essential nature of meaning and is often a kind of discovery. We read the poem and we see something, we hear something, we feel something that had not existed before – and this can surprise the poet his or herself. Meaning and truth are not abstractions anymore but are given form, symbolic, metaphoric and mimetic too, and this is beauty.

Beauty, as Thomas Aquinas observed, arrests motion: we encounter, we are bewitched by its magic, and in truly great poetry the beauty goes to an even higher level and reaches sublimity, by which we are astonished and stare in awe, amazed at this suspension of all critical or other faculty that would bid us stir. And if this seems incredible we need only reflect on the origins of the love of words – nursery rhymes, songs, and riddles when we were very young. How often did we demand our parent, ‘Tell me again, mum!’ We were, literally, spellbound.

And this leads on to the second point. Technique, thoroughly absorbed and engrained, is necessary to write poetry that is art, but it is not sufficient to produce it. For all the great and the less great – though still real – poets know: there is a Muse, and this Muse is not under our conscious control, although she can be invoked, and all of us may have rituals which enable her presence. For without her presence, the work may be clever, entertaining, right-on, politically correct, and many other ‘good’ things, but it won’t be the real thing, the real poem.

Thus, it should be obvious that reliance on the Muse is the exact opposite of writing from the ego, for in one important sense the poet abandons conscious control of the poem to this higher force; the ego of course never abandons control – cannot abandon control. Later, perhaps, the output benefits from editing, but that is later – real poetry is, literally, inspired – comes from the deep breath, the inspiration, of the universe itself. Whosoever writes such poetry puts themselves in the way – the Tao – of the nature of things, and of course their poems live irrespective of fame or public opinion. Invoking the Muse does not depend on university degrees or professorships, as Shakespeare and Keats all too ably demonstrate. (One reason of course why there is an academic – and phoney – industry attempting to prove that Shakespeare really never wrote Shakespeare: how much better if he were an Oxford graduate!)

And there is another important consequence of this: namely, that the Muse always creates beauty by showing the structure of meaning – making it visible, as it were. This is odd in the modern and post-modern world which majors on ugliness, formlessness and despair – and thinks in some morally superior manner that this is ‘reality’, this is how it is, and that they are not deluded by effeminate notions such as ‘beauty’. They ‘see through’ beauty – and miss all the ‘gorgeous palaces’ of existence.

Of course they also totally mistake what ‘beauty’ is in this context. To give one example of what I mean, there are few things worse in human history than the misery, degradation and suffering that the soldiers went through in World War One – the Western Front as it was called. For a prolonged period of time it was an arena that was so terrible that we can scarcely imagine its full horrors. Even Homer, I think, would have been appalled. So when Wilfred Owen writes poetry about it, he is not disguising or soft-soaping the nightmare; on the contrary, he confronts it head on. But, through the words and techniques he uses, something of primal beauty is created that simultaneously re-creates that horror in a way nothing else can or does and makes us feel it in a new way. It is quite extraordinary; in his poem ‘Strange Meeting’ I would argue that he achieves sublimity – he is there with Homer, with Shakespeare, in creating a vision so intense that we are transported from ourselves to perceive conflict with a renewed heart inside us.

This final point – ‘renewed heart’ – also bears a brief comment. Poetry, at root, affects our feelings or it is hardly worth the name. The twentieth century has given rise to the dominance of an image-based poetry which is more head than heart-based, and in that sense is often (but not always) ineffective. Poetry begins with sound, not image, and the reason for this begins in the womb: our first sense is hearing – our mother’s heart beat. It is in the beat – the line – the rhythm and metric that the full capability to move us resides in the English language. English is in fact naturally iambic in constitution, and that is why something like 90% of great poetry is written in that form; and the form properly used enables infinite varieties of meaning and beauty. For an object lesson in this one has only to read Yeats, who was a modernist, but also a master of the iambic line, which he probably used to greater effect than any other poet in the last two hundred years.

The second primary reason, then, to write poetry is to create art: which is as much as to say, which is to create beauty, by using words to draw the inherent meaning in anything and everything, but especially in being a human being and all the richness that that means. We are not all going to be great poets, and it’s not a competition anyway; we are all dependent on the Muse and we need to wait in the silence till that voice speaks and that flow begins. If we can let the ego go, then we can write to heal ourselves and maybe in time write some words that really do speak beauty. In that way we help and encourage others.

 

 

James Sale FRSA is an inspiring public speaker, fluent writer of management, educational, and spiritual ideas with nearly 20 books to his credit listed on Amazon. He is Europe’s leading expert, trainer and coach on motivation and performance, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. Maps are now in six languages and in twelve countries. James has been writing poetry and about poetry for over 40 years. His educational texts include, The Poetry Show volumes 1-3 (with David Orme, Macmillan 1987), Poetry Street 1-3 (with David Orme, Longmans 1991) and Blueprints Poetry (Thornes, 1998). He has appeared in many UK magazines (and is about to appear in the USA in the Anglican Theological Review) and had seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. James has been a Quaker for 11 years.

Featured Image: “The Muse Euterpe” by Johann Heinrich Tischbein (1722-1789)

 

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4 Responses

  1. Profile photo of The Society
    The Society

    A comment from Robert King (rlucienking@gmail.com):

    Mr. Sales, I forgive you for referring to me as Richard (in your
    response to my comment on “To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme”) because you have
    just published this essay, which is outstanding and astounding. I
    must confess, however, that I sent a copy of your essay to one of my
    real-life muses (I have two, only one of which is Euterpe) and her
    response was “it is clearly a parallel outlook to yours.”. To see how
    closely parallel, I invite you to visit my website,
    http://www.theoryofpoetry.com, and take a glance at the first two blog
    entries on page one and the first one on page two (entitled: “Formal
    Verse Frees One From the Fetters of One’s Ego”) in particular.

    My question to you is: Do you ever feel that that it is us against
    the poetry world, as with few exceptions people do not understand or
    want to understand what we are saying?

    Reply
    • james sale

      Hi Robert – forgive me for my error and note too, Sale, as you would expect: singular. Love your comments and love your web site, which I have bookmarked and which is a veritable cornucopia of amazing and wonderful stuff, much of which I knew nothing: Villa, for example, is somebody whose work I have not encountered before. Thus, I need time to come back and read through your material in more detail; may be then we should have a skype chat?

      Reply
  2. Alec Subre Wide

    The Splendid Railway Bridge Upon the Silver Tay
    for James Sale

    The splendid railway bridge upon the silver Tay,
    December 28, 1879,
    collapsed in a fierce gale, and part was shorn away,
    the number dying there—perhaps seventy-five.
    The Scottish poet William T. McGonagill,
    acclaimed by some to write as fine as file or knife,
    commemorated its demise in doggerel,
    which is, like the foundations of that bridge, still there,
    where, like a Roman aquaduct in foggy swill,
    its sweep of pillars stays out in the open air,
    in ruins not too far removed fro’ th’ new railway,
    remembered for a long time…its load hard to bear.

    Reply

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