Thursday, April 17, 2008

What is poetry?

I have struggled, in this most unpoetic age, with the meaning of poetry in its broadest possible sense. I remain hopeful and optimistic about what poetry can do, how it can capture our utopian imagination and how it can build us a better future. Not everyone has a positive view of poetry. Besides Plato’s infamous condemnation of poets and poetry as a purely mimetic force that always exists second hand, many others have condemned poetry. Consider this approach to poetry outlined by Thomas Macaulay, a British Whig politician and, ironically, a poet in his own right.

“Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.”

Here is poetry defined as deception. Rather sad outlook I believe. But for all his strange and erratic behaviour, I prefer William Hazlitt’s more positive outlook on poetry. Hazlitt writes:

“Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else. It is not a mere frivolous accomplishment… it has been the study and delight of mankind in all ages. Poetry is only the highest eloquence of passion, the most vivid form of expression that can be given to our conception of anything, whether pleasurable or painful, mean or dignified, delightful or distressing.”

I leave you to decide which you prefer.

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