Poetry has never been more important. In turbulent times like these, it is natural to search for reliable sources of truth. But where do we find what can seem so illusive?
Does it come through the ever-increasing number of chattering channels, each competing to be heard in the swelling volume of contradictory news? Or through inherited wisdom and knowledge passed down through small family units, as we spread ever further from our roots?
Perhaps we need to look elsewhere. To a timeless source of truth that always speaks from its time to the present moment. Something not based on a need for popularity, specific geography or instantaneous praise.
In times like these, we need poetry more than ever. Here’s why.
When power corrupts
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses”
What Kennedy understood as he uttered these famous words was the impact poetry can have on truth. Truth as an expansion but not stretching of the facts. Sometimes, facts can be truthful and yet escape without telling the whole truth. Because truth is more than fact, it is experience, it is the sum of all the facts and it is the truth of their importance.
Poetry is something we can inherit; a lineage of wisdom extending backward from today. And in it you find an understanding of experiences that seem unfathomable to our own, current perception of life.
The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon offer insight into the first world war no documentary can offer. The South African ‘struggle poets’ show us the reality of apartheid oppression by using those very voices the oppressors wished to silence. And in these revelations, we find a source of truth that is personal, specific and felt. It is a truth we find through empathy and compassion rather than finding meaning through dry analysis.
Words that cross barriers
Adrienne Rich offers a humbling, raw picture of gender politics and American life over half a century. Through her precise, masterful incisions, she translates truths so that anyone might access them. And whether they make us uncomfortable, reassured or shocked, her poetry is a mirror for us to reflect our own experience in. They may not be of today but are no less relevant for it.
‘Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow,
Enough to let me know
She’s a woman of my time’
From Translations in Diving into the Wreck (1972)
There are also some genuinely extraordinary invitations from the most unlikely of sources in poetry. Take for example the Statesman-poets. They include a number of published US president-poets but, perhaps more interestingly, several infamous tyrants too. The young poet Soselo, is a fascinating example of this apparent contradiction. Aged sixteen, Soselo wrote hopeful lines like:
‘My spirit trembling, once again
I’ll glimpse before me the bright moon.’
From Iveria, No 123 (1895)
Yet Soselo was the pseudonym of a young Josef Stalin.
From beginners learning to write poetry to seasoned wordsmiths, all writers reveal themselves as individuals in their poetry even if we have always known them as icons or foreign others. They reveal an innocence and honesty in their desires and hopes; empathy and anger in their griefs and despairs. It reveals the writer as a human, as an individual – one willing speak out and reveal some part of themselves.
Poetry denies us the chance to dismiss any writer as illegitimate in their depiction of life. After all it is theirs they are telling, and in their telling is revealed some truth of their experience. It brings their conversation into our own and in doing so expands each of us.
But what else does poetry do? Poetry communicates meaning beyond facts; it connects people through shared experience or empathy; and crucially, it slows us down. To read a poem is not a quick thought, something to skim read and move on from, unmoved. It demands our attention. It asks us to step back and reflect; to empathise with some other perspective on reality.
And in this slowing down we invite ourselves into a further understanding of a situation: drawing new conclusions, asking new questions, finding new voice. We live in a time when so many voices are heard speaking, yet so few are actually heard. Poetry is our necessary counter to all this.
Add your own voice
But poetry is not something only for those who are wiser or better than us. Poetry is for everyone and everyone has access to it. And that means not only reading poetry, but writing it; discovering and cultivating your own voice. Writing the words that will slow others down into an understanding of your experience of this life.
In doing so, you contribute to a wider sense of the telling of the truth of our time, which may help us navigate it. Our voice matters. As Richard Frankland, the aboriginal writer, says:
‘When you have art
You have voice;
When you have voice
You have freedom;
When you have freedom
You have responsibility.’
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