What Can Poetry Teach Us?

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.

William Wordsworth

Several years ago, I went to ‘Breakfast With Poets and Ideas,’ an event at Melbourne University. A selection of guest poets discussed why they wrote poetry and who or what motivated them.

They discussed the question: Can poets change the times they live in?

  • Is it okay to philosophise with your pen? 
  • Can writing be political?
  • Should it be political?
  • Do poets simply share what they see or think at a particular time?
  • Are poets revealing their feelings, arousing emotions and trying to change attitudes?

What is the purpose of poetry?

  • Is it primarily a mental exercise, a playing with words to amuse self and the reader?
  • Should teaching or preaching be secondary – perhaps non-existent?
  • Must there be a message -what of the inner child?
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Beach park, Peter Scullin Reserve, Mordialloc

This term in class we’ve been looking at how poetic techniques, especially simile, metaphor and personification, can lift writing from the realm of ordinariness to be engaging and memorable, even if the poem is not deep and meaningful.

There are so many poems to choose from, but I’ve stuck with those regarded as classics or my personal favourites.

Metaphor by Eve Merriam
Morning is
a new sheet of paper
for you to write on

Whatever you want to say
all day
until night
folds up
and files it away

The bright words and the dark words
are gone
until dawn
and a new day
to write on.

How To Eat A Poem by Eve Merriam
Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Poetic language gives us life experience through the words, the poet’s power of transcendence can be magical and powerful. The images created take us to a world of enchantment, exuberance, entertainment and yet have us reflect on living and life’s ‘big picture’.

The Daffodils  by William Wordsworth, 1770 – 1850

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

daffodil-field-of-spring-flowers-1118523

The Land Of Nod by Robert Louis Stevenson

From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do —
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

dreamworld

  • Poets can sway thinking and emotions, especially of influential people and can encourage social progress and justice. (WW1 poets) The diaries of POWs and journals of soldiers examples of carefulness and mindfulness of word choice and meaning. The fragility of the human condition.

The War Sonnets: V The Soldier by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Wall of memory to war dead, National War Memorial Canberra, ACT
  • Poets notice detail, they don’t pass or ignore the every day. (Emily Dickinson)

How happy is the little Stone by Emily Dickinson

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—

Accomplished Facts by Carl Sandburg

Every year Emily Dickinson sent one friend
the first arbutus bud in her garden.

In a last will and testament Andrew Jackson
remembered a friend with the gift of George
Washington’s pocket spy-glass.

Napoleon too, in a last testament, mentioned a silver
watch taken from the bedroom of Frederick the Great,
and passed along this trophy to a particular friend.

O. Henry took a blood carnation from his coat lapel
and handed it to a country girl starting work in a
bean bazaar, and scribbled: “Peach blossoms may or
may not stay pink in city dust.”

So it goes. Some things we buy, some not.
Tom Jefferson was proud of his radishes, and Abe
Lincoln blacked his own boots, and Bismarck called
Berlin a wilderness of brick and newspapers.

So it goes. There are accomplished facts.
Ride, ride, ride on in the great new blimps—
Cross unheard-of oceans, circle the planet.
When you come back we may sit by five hollyhocks.
We might listen to boys fighting for marbles.
The grasshopper will look good to us.

So it goes …

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The memorial to John Lennon in Central park NY
  • Poetry won’t teach us to live well but incite us to try to do so. (Judith Wright) Many poets immerse themselves in the natural and cultural environment, their perception of life and love laid bare in their words.

Metho Drinker by Judith Wright

Under the death of winter’s leaves he lies
who cried to Nothing and the terrible night
to be his home and bread. “O take from me
the weight and waterfall ceaseless Time
that batters down my weakness; the knives of light
whose thrust I cannot turn; the cruelty
of human eyes that dare not touch nor pity.”
Under the worn leaves of the winter city
safe in the house of Nothing now he lies.

His white and burning girl, his woman of fire,
creeps to his heart and sets a candle there
to melt away the flesh that hides from bone,
to eat the nerve that tethers him in time.
He will lie warm until the bone is bare
and on a dead dark moon he wakes alone.
It was for Death he took her; death is but this;
and yet he is uneasy under her kiss
and winces from that acid of her desire.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

bird at Alcatraz

  • Poetry will make space for your inner life. (WH Auden) We need the poet’s eye to make the familiar extraordinary. Poets have words to remind us of the daily beauties of nature, we are too busy to notice.

… rain bubblewrapping the window… its squirting glance… rustle of descending silk… streetlights tumbledown gloom… skyline of gold muted glow… rain wetting its own socks… rain grumbling across awnings and rooftops… tomorrow’s weather haunts a small room…

Funeral Blues by WH Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Cut Grass by Philip Larkin

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

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  • Poets value precision and truthfulness in language and give language intensity.

Shame by Kevin Gilbert

And some say “Shame” when we’re talkin’ up
And “Shame” for the way we are
And “Shame” cause we ain’t got a big flash house
Or a steady job and a car.
Some call it “Shame” when our kids they die
From colds or from sheer neglect
“Shame” when we live on the river banks
While collectin’ our welfare cheques
“Shame” when we’re blind from trachoma
“Shame” when we’re crippled from blights
But I reckon the worstest shame is yours
You deny us human rights

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  • Poetry can be successfully political by going inwards first before going outwards to create profound images that make the message universal. (Pablo Neruda)

The Dictators by Pablo Neruda

An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence

IMG_6508 - Version 2

Poetry can be a potent and resistant force. A political poem often comes out of deepest privacy, perhaps the result of personal trauma.  Spiritual growth or lack of it may lead to a political poem, which comes from the poet’s innermost turmoil because poets bear witness to the times they live in. Neruda lived through the destruction of Allende’s Government in Chile and the rise of Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

The function of poetry is to raise deeper awareness, not necessarily encourage activism, but encourage thought and an inward change. Poetry will not or should not ignore evidence – it may be ephemeral, but must be authentic and truthful. Although poets use words, poetry is the art of images, the art of languages – metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, allusion, repetition, personification, irony, motifs, senses, parody and prophecy…

The Tyger by William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

We Are Going by Oodgeroo Noonuccal  

They came in to the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: ‘Rubbish May Be Tipped Here’.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
‘We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.
We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.’

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Yeats shows us how a single word can change meaning – when the beast (donkey) ‘slouches towards Bethlehem ‘…

The Second Coming by William Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Songwriting and music’s  poetic sensibilities lead to powerful messages and songwriters are less inhibited about being political. (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez) Joni Mitchell wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem warning us like Yeats that a reckoning, a revelation is at hand!

A good poem is intrinsically musical. There is a rhythm, an innate musicality of the words so that poets don’t need the extra layer of music. However, if you include songwriting as poetry then poems can have a wide-ranging impact!

Poets always have an anxiety about how the world is changing, and this century is no exception.Issues like war perennial, but now we have global warming and the effects of climate change to worry about! It is disconcerting to consider ‘this broken thing we call the world’ but poetry does it admirably and we are enriched.

Slavery,  racism and social injustice were considered the norm not that long ago. Poets, songwriters and other artists who despised racism and slavery, who believed in the ‘brotherhood of man’ persuaded people to change their beliefs. Poets like William Blake (English), Walt Whitman (American), William Butler Yeats (Irish) and Robert Burns (Scottish).  International condemnation prophetically and eloquently phrased urging reform and their fellow citizens to embrace equality and tolerance.

Recently, I’ve been privileged to have a poem chosen for an anthology to help bring world attention to the refugee crisis. The money from the sale of the anthology will be a practical help to the greatest humanitarian crisis this century. You can read some amazing poems written for Writers For Calais Refugees.

Where would we be without poetry and the lessons we learn?

Do you have a favourite poem, or a poem that has impressed you, motivated you to write, or introduced you to a technique you can use in your own writing?  Please share and I will add it to my repertoire for class.

5 thoughts on “What Can Poetry Teach Us?

  1. Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    Ok, I know this is a lot that I am sharing here, but it is a great discussion on poetry, and include some amazing poems. It is definitely worth taking the time to read it!
    Thank you, Mairi, for taking the time to write and organize this!
    Peace,
    Sherrie

    Like

    1. Dear Sherrie thank you for reading the post and sharing it. It is a long post, but we are so lucky to have so many wonderful poets and writers to choose from and aspire to – we might leave a legacy too! At the moment, I’m organising class anthologies and it’s so exciting to read the end product of classes we’ve had on poetry.

      Like

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