G.K. Chesterton once wrote of his friend Bernard Shaw, the playwright, that he was possibly “the only man on earth who has never written any poetry.”
This quip strikes us, living in an age where scarcely anyone reads poetry, let alone writes it, as very strange and improbable. And yet, whatever the hyperbole involved, Chesterton hit on something extremely important, something that seems strange to us now only because we (and not Chesterton) are abnormal: abnormal in much the same way that Chesterton believed Shaw was abnormal.
The first thing to note is that Chesterton intended his remark as an insult. Though Shaw and Chesterton were fast friends, they disagreed about just about everything, and argued endlessly about their disagreements. In accusing Shaw of never having written poetry, Chesterton was taking a jab at the man, suggesting that there was something about him that was deficient.
Exactly what that deficiency might be is tough to put one’s finger on. But perhaps the best way to get at it is to contrast the two words in the English language that denote the two primary modes of writing or speech (i.e. prose and poetry) and the adjectives derived from them (i.e. prosaic and poetic).
The word prosaic suggests to us the hum-drum and the ordinary. Poetic, on the other hand, suggests the unusual and the extraordinary (especially the extraordinarily beautiful). Whereas the ruminations of cool reason are best expressed in crystalline, but unadorned prose, poetry is often linked with flights of imagination. What Chesterton was getting at, then, is that that a fully human life is composed of both the prosaic and the poetic, but that Shaw, for various reasons, was all prose and no poetry, and that this somehow made him an incomplete person.
Nowadays, we have gotten into the habit of speaking of poetry as something “stuffy” and “artificial.” People don’t read Shakespeare or Shelley anymore because their high-flown manner of writing, so different from ordinary speech, is supposedly not “relevant” to their lives. Poetry, they say, doesn’t speak to their daily “lived experience.” But if this is so, this is not so much proof of the inadequacies of poetry in speaking to our contemporary lives, but of the inadequacy of contemporary living, that it contains in it nothing sufficiently poetic that Shakespeare and Shelley should have something to say about it.
Certainly, poetry is “artificial” in the sense of involving artifice – i.e. artem facere (Latin for “to make art”) – the deliberate act of creation according to set rules of craftsmanship. However, what just about everybody for thousands of years in countless cultures around the globe understood is that there is a sense in which poetic artifice is completely natural, because there exist certain thoughts and feelings and experiences that can only be adequately expressed in poetry. And if this is so, then the artifice involved in writing poetry is entirely natural to the purpose of expressing those poetic things.
What sort of things? Well, love, obviously. But also war, and heroism, and the founding of states, and the creation of the world, and the gods, and the beauty (and violence) of nature, and the terror of death, and suffering, and the might of the winds and the waves, and the great loneliness of being, and (in one instance that is dear to me) the feeling you get when that particular ray of light pierces through the window curtains on a quiet, winter Sunday morning and strikes the floorboards.
The difference between us and the people of Chesterton’s time is that when we experience such things, we often have absolutely no idea what to do about it, except experience them. Though Chesterton’s quip about Shaw was clearly hyperbolic, it was a hyperbole that he felt he could safely make and still be understood by his contemporaries. The reason being that, at the time, it was very nearly true. No, not everybody on earth – or even in England – in the early 20th century had written poetry. And yet, nearly every educated person did in fact write poetry, if only because doing so was required in school. Furthermore, in 19th and early-20th century Britain (and America for that matter) the great poets were viewed as national heroes, their works devoured and discussed voraciously by the upper and lower classes alike. Given the wild popularity of poetry, it’s no surprise that many people dabbled in the poetic arts, capturing their poetic thoughts and experiences, as best they could, in the medium best suited to the job.
Nowadays, however, if we have a literary bent we might “blog” or journal about these things, but the result is usually insipid, and clearly inadequate to the purpose. The feeling or insight we had isn’t the feeling or insight expressed in our puerile, overwrought prose in the pages of our journal. That is the merest shadow of the thing. What we felt or saw was so much nobler, or darker, or meaningful than that!
In reality, the most natural thing to do is to pick up pen and paper, and to try to form these thoughts and feelings into words that, if they are to capture the extraordinary nature of those thoughts and feelings, must somehow transcend the prosaic. And the way to do that is to make them rhyme, or follow artificial rules of rhythm, or to choose them with painstaking precision, or at a bare minimum to split them into lines, which has the curious, but immediate effect of suggesting to the reader that there is something here that demands enhanced attention.
Naturally, unless you have put an enormous amount of effort into practicing writing poetry, or are possessed of some extraordinary, God-given gift, the results of your poetic labours will almost certainly be rubbish. But that’s not the point. The very effort comes with its own rewards. If you are a man in love, there is the practical benefit that you will have something to give your beloved, something crafted at the cost of such time and effort that, regardless of its flaws, will go a long way towards convincing her of the depth and sincerity of your feelings. Since odds are slim that she is a literary critic, the effort comes with little risk, and considerable advantages.
But even if love is not your theme, and there is no beloved to whom you might send the poem (on – it need not be said – fine parchment, in your finest calligraphy, and scented with cologne or perfume), the writing of poetry has numerous other advantages. In no particular order: 1) You will discover just how difficult writing poetry is, and may well gain a newfound appreciation for the great genius that gave us Paradise Lost, Ode to a Nightingale, To a Skylark, The Aeneid, etc. 2) As a result, you might well feel the impulse to read more poetry (this alone would be worth the exercise); 3) Writing poetry will force you to focus on the idea, experience, or feeling you wish to express poetically with an intensity that you would never achieve if you merely jotted it down in your journal, or on your blog. As attention is the sine qua non of all observation, it is highly likely that you will see or learn something about yourself or the world that you would not otherwise have seen or learned; 4) You will heighten your sensitivity to the beauty of words, the wealth of words at our disposal, and the delicate shades of meaning that differentiate even apparent synonyms from one another, so that one synonym cannot easily be substituted for another in a poem without doing damage to the notion or sentiment you are trying to express.
But most importantly, in draping your idea, experience, or feeling in the regal garments of poetry, you may discover that, in fact, your idea, experience or feeling is a regal, noble thing, if only because it is the idea, experience or feeling of a noble being: a thinking, feeling being, who is capable of peering beneath the flesh and into the very kernel of reality. That is to say, you may discover that the visions of the poets were not mere illusions, detached and irrelevant to our lives. Quite the contrary. If you are especially attentive, you may well catch a glimpse of the startling truth that the real illusion is the illusion of the prosaic – i.e. the illusion that anything in existence is truly humdrum or “ordinary”.
To me, this is what we have lost in our unthinking abandonment of poetry: i.e. the awareness that the feelings of boredom, disgust, and tedium that we allow to pervade our days are not the appropriate response to the mystery and magnificence of reality, and that the only reason we do not speak in poetry perpetually is not for lack of poetic things, but for lack of vision to see the poetic things in which we are immersed. One of the most effective ways I have found of shaking off the stupefaction of the prosaic, and catching glimpse of the poetic, is to write poetry – however atrocious the final product might be. For, to conclude as we began (i.e. with Chesterton): “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
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