Thirteen Thoughts on Poetry

"The Phoenix" by Ben Shahn (1952).
"The Phoenix" by Ben Shahn (1952).

(First published by the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts "New Defences of Poetry" series: a bicentennial celebration of Percy Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry").


1. Poems are loud and quiet. For this to be so, poets dabble with rhythm, rhyme, tone, and linguistic texture. These form part of the method of poetry. They should not be mistaken for its meaning. 


2. Some poets profess to harbouring a love of language, and suggest that this be understood as the impetus driving their creative work. Such claims indicate a personal eccentricity rather than a requisite of the craft. Poets need love their language (be it chosen, inherited, or imposed) to the same degree that carpenters must love the wood they carve and the tools they use, or film directors adore the equipment available to them on-set – that is, not at all. Poets need to use language, not love it.


3. Technical fluency and a larger awareness of precedent and purpose will assist the poet, and something similar is true of all craftspeople. But the materials used and traditions drawn on will remain, essentially, means to an end. They are not the final measure of what is produced. This is because poets work towards a statement on a world that belongs to other people: a statement that adds what a few of those people (and perhaps many of them) will recognise as something extra. Such recognition is part of the meaning of poetry. Poems are never finished.


4. Libraries have been filled with studies of the relationship of poetry and song. We rarely explore the common ground (the potential echoing, mirroring, and mutuality) between the crafts of poetry and wood-work, cinematography, etc. Perhaps we still think of poets as exceptional beings, mythical beasts who create and then compel others to believe in a private life, a personal view of things. What this understanding obscures is that the poet’s life is our own, and cannot exist without us.


5. It is strenuously difficult to love, in any recognisable sense of the word, language in the abstract. Languages tend to exist and evolve in the ways in which they are used, and in the lives of the people who speak, adapt, and change them to their purposes. As such, mis-speech is both a permanent impossibility and a constant source of linguistic innovation. Poetry thrives on this paradox. In poetry, every contradiction is a kind of balance.


6. Language as self-sufficiency, simmering in the lushness and mystery of its own autarkic existence, is an illusion: a screen onto which images of artistic expertise, intellectual stature, or social exclusivity can easily be made to flicker. Inhuman language, divorced from life, is the dream of every ivory tower-guard, convinced of a treasure that only they would value, only they can understand. Poetry belongs to the quick, and the many, or it is false: a pose.


7. When poets speak of a love of language, they usually mean English – rather than Mohawk, say, or Scots Gaelic. This is a curious cultural tendency, given the unlovable history of English as a global imperiolect, interwoven at the root with colonial barbarism and commercial ruthlessness. The most mellifluous line of English verse risks stirring such spectres, riffling the maps with a whisper of what was taken, broken, made to die – as somebody, somewhere, turns mutely in their grave. Poetry must feel its way into this silence.


8. Formal wit and a sibilant soundscape are entirely compatible with systemic fascism or rape culture, or an accommodation to these and other destructions. The complexities of a text as a verbal or sonic system and the calculated cruelties of social violence are not inherently in opposition. They must be made to be so. This is a conscious act. 


9. Poetry consoles insofar as it disturbs. In an important sense, every poem is a disturbance – like a murmur in a train station, which knows despite the cacophony that there are listeners who hear. Poetry believes in other people. To that extent, poetry is a utopia that actually exists. Poetry is a blueprint.


10. People are beautiful, with the dreams they envision and the forms (of life-in-common) they enact. The words we speak, however, are beautiful only when they share in the experience of a deeper need. In the end, a love of the world, or a grief, a defining crisis or compulsion, a fixation demanding transmission or ease – these enrich and oxygenate the life of a poem more fully and durably than a love of language, a passion for noise. 


11. The urge to mythologise literary talent should be resisted. Intuition plays its part, opening up new skies, in the composition of a poem. But this doesn’t change the reality that poetry affirms both consciousness and community: it cannot exist outside of the ability to create, and the will to discover ourselves in the creations of others. Poetry is communal, and a choice. 


12. In The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn writes: “Intuition in art is actually the product of prolonged tuition” (108). This is true, provided we understand that we learn from life, and not just from poetry. The world is our workshop. Often, the inverse is presumed to be the case: a sometimes self-serving confusion among poetry-experts.



13. In life, there are no experts; there are only the living, and the memory or imagination of the dead and unborn. Poetry understands this, or it is nothing. Poetry is multitudinous; it is transient and perennial. Poetry inspires.

CIARÁN O'ROURKE (FIRST PUBLISHED BY NCLA: New Defences of Poetry) // July 2021