The Power of Poetry
– Duncan Shields
Poetry uses language to surpass language.
That is the central thought I’ve come to believe during my relationship with the spoken and written word. Effective poetry resonates with people. It evokes a response in the listener (or reader) that’s different from looking at a sculpture or hearing a symphony. I find that music and imagery access a different part of the mind from language; an older, less conscious section more on par with instinct.
We use language, however, to communicate and to try to translate the world around us. So the act of reading or hearing language is collaborative. It accesses a layer of the mind reserved for conscious thought. It can ruin your heart or project you into happiness but it first must enter your mind through the filter of language. Therein lays the magic.
The rules of prose and conversation don’t apply to poetry and that is the factor that gives it such power. Its ability to twist the words we take for granted into new words we no longer recognize is magic. Metaphors place everyday objects into strange, alien places and show us new ways of perceiving the world.
Or maybe the poetry that resonates simply reminds us of a person, a shared experience that bubbles a memory of a lost lover’s hair to the forefront of our mind. Maybe a turn of phrase reminds us of a long forgotten city street from our past. Failures, triumphs, and dusty corners can be lit up in our mind by poetry.
Poetry, to me, is the great reordering of the language of textbooks, contracts, dictionaries, and manuals into something transcendent: the attempt to explain something for which there are no words.
If a culture has no word for mercy, can it be said to even have mercy? Of course it can. But how would they describe it? There are many words in other languages that have no correlation in English but they can be defined in English by way of clumsy definition. Poetry can shortcut words like that.
Imagine if an insect that was capable of seeing thousands more colours that our eyes. If they were given the power of human speech, how would they be able to describe those colours to us? “Dark orange. Super dark orange.” Just wouldn’t cut it for the amount of specificity needed. I prefer to think they’d have to use poetry to make us understand. Lightning Raspberry Brass. Polished Moth Ash.
Or think of a dog’s amazing nose and picture that dog trying to describe smells that we can’t possibly comprehend. Like the colours, a mere “smells like chicken” wouldn’t do it and a literal detailed list of nuances would be too long for casual conversation. It would have to be terms warped from language into something we could maybe understand. Fish Armpit. Curling Iron Curtains.
I’ve also noticed that an object that does something very well for a long time usually becomes a metaphor. Engines. Lightning rods. Mirrors. Dams. It will be a long while before we see which of our modern conveniences transcend to that level.
But such are the challenges that language comes up against when trying to define or explain the abstractions of emotion, soul and life. And such is the solution that poetry offers. A poem can, in a very short time, get to the heart of something that a ten-page essay merely defines. A poet can unsettle in a way that changes nations. One slogan can change the destiny of a corporation. A life can have its vector altered by a very short poem.
To me, the power of poetry lies in its ability to expose the abstract without defining it but at the same time breaching it into the light. By using language to surpass language, we can communicate on a level that goes deeper into our conscious minds than any other medium.