What’s the point of poetry? is a question asked in classrooms all over the world, but which rarely receives a satisfactory answer. Which is why so many perfectly literate, successful adults who read all kinds of books, never read poetry after leaving school.
A metrophobe isn’t someone who’s terrified of underground railways, it’s someone who’s afraid of poetry. But The Point of Poetry isn’t just for metrophobes, it’s a much more important book because it argues that you will learn far more from poets than from most other people claiming to help you understand the world you live in.
In it you will find more than twenty famous and not so famous poems by poets as varied as William Blake, John Milton, Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove and Hollie McNish.
Although most of their poems are reproduced this is definitively not a book of literary criticism for the kind of student expecting someone else to dissect specific poems word-by-word for them. That’s why where they are reproduced, they appear at the end of a chapter, not the beginning. By that time my hope is you will be just itching to read them.
Poetry is all about economy. Poets pack meaning into few words. No other kind of writer does this. Poems are like fireworks stuffed full, not with exotic chemicals, but with ideas. When you read them: you light the touch paper. This book will show you how to light the touch paper for yourself.
Some of the poems you may have heard of, others, almost certainly not, but for each of them I have used the same simple process of taking it as the starting point for an essay about the world we all know and live in today. That’s what happens when you light the touch paper. The poem ignites something in you about in the world you personally inhabit, the space you occupy in history and the people you have shared irreplaceable hours with.
If any of the essays amuse, entertain, enlighten or delight you then The Point of Poetry will have done its job. But if they send you rushing to the end in search of the poem, to light its touch paper for yourself, then I will quietly and secretly rejoice.
The Tyger – William Blake.
Most children lucky enough to have attended school in an English speaking country with a functioning state education system will have seen this poem. So I imagine it has a lot to do with why so many successful adults end up hating poetry. William Blake probably features on every metrophobe’s hit list, even those who will belt out Jerusalem at the top of their voice before an international rugby match, or on far less religious occasions, perhaps in adult life unaware that he was responsible for both these building blocks of English classrooms worldwide.
To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even, have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt. The barrage of rhetorical questions that makes up most of the poem piles on the agony and it’s easy to see why so many children might respond perfectly well to a brightly coloured illustration of the poem without even beginning to grasp a single idea it contains. Even if they know something about the book of Genesis and quickly get the idea in the first verse of God creating the tiger, and designing its fearful symmetry; to any child trying gamely to grasp the concept of symmetry in their maths class, illustrations that show a tiger sideways on are just plain cruel. Think of all those diagonals. That’s verging on abuse. The poem always makes me wonder if Blake had ever seen a tiger himself, face first as it were.
Blake was of course, an artist as well as a poet, although strictly speaking he was an engraver and when you look at his own illustration for The Tyger from his book, Songs of Experience, also sideways on, it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence he knew anything about big cats. Blake’s tiger is a vastly oversized, overweight moggy, grinning stupidly on its way to meet Alice and the Dormouse for tea and some more of those yummy, toasted muffins. Critics and later fans love to describe Blake as a visionary, which has the advantage of being literally true, since he saw visions throughout his life, and they played a key part in his art. Just take a look at his illustration, The Day of Judgement for Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave, or anything at all he produced to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost. So it is perhaps naïve to even suggest he would be interested in depicting a tiger naturally. Wordsworth was convinced he was mad and the astonishing variety of revolutionary and radical thinkers and thoughts Blake toyed with throughout his life, certainly don’t point to a man of great intellectual stability. He wore the red floppy hat popular with French revolutionaries… and Noddy, until news of Madame Le Guillotine’s excessive appetite turned his stomach. He spent his life entirely in London with a spell in Sussex, so it’s fruitless to look for natural beauty or insight in a poem like The Tyger, as we might in anything by George Mackay Brown. Although the obvious word jungle was certainly available to him as an import from early British adventures in India, he opts for the temperate forests instead, as though he wanted his tiger to be stalking the English countryside alongside Robin Hood.
Sincere thanks to those of you who have kicked off with pledges. I am well ahead of schedule and on my final chapter but thought this might be of interest. I've listened to a lot of poetry being read online, because there is plenty to listen to, but it has really stunned me to discover just how variable the quality of the readings are. I could point you to a reading of Paradise Lost, for example,…