When I think of the power of poetry, I think of a series of gestures of renunciation.
I think of Karin Boye, the female Swedish poet; of her valiant and vulnerable voice, her praise for “the strength of brittle things”, and her desire “to face the powers of the world / weaponless”.
Are we then, as poets, empowered? Do I, as a poet, feel empowered? Or are we rather powerless? If anything, the burden and beauty of poetry should over-power us.
Poetry doesn’t give me the power, doesn’t licence me, to say whatever I want in whichever way I choose. It rather forces me to attend to the potentials of language and to generate meanings beyond my private prerogatives.
I think of T.S. Eliot’s concept of tradition; so indispensable, yet so inimical to post-modern priorities and the contemporary thirst for private empowerment: “You must go by the way of dispossession”.
Poetry has power over me. I am answerable to its exacting standards. I am answerable also to the irreducibility of the world that poetry reveals and makes possible.
This fills me at times with a sense of inadequacy, but also with a real strength of purpose. Poetry has the power, like few other things, to constitute a vocation. It can inspire, console, sustain. It can replenish at times of emotional, intellectual and existential torpor.
In my life, poetry has had the power – time and again – to lift me out of one context and plant me in another. There are poets who have deepened my sense of belonging in my native land and language. There are also poets who have inspired in me a life-changing love of other languages and cultures.
I think of William Blake. Not, chiefly, of the famous lines, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”. So seductive to the adolescent, they risk underpinning the pretension to self-sufficiency. I think, instead, of the exultant affirmation of a more-than-personal force and fluency: ”I come in self-annihilation and the grandeur of inspiration”.
Those poets whose work has most truly overwhelmed me, and so made me most convinced of the power of poetry, are precisely those who have taught me the initially uncomfortable need for self-surrender in the act of writing (as in life).
I think, finally, of R.S. Thomas. His sobering words on the “Death of a Poet”:
Intestate, having nothing to leave
But a few songs, cold as stones
In the thin hands that asked for bread.
I am in awe of Thomas’s stark refusal to pander to pieties and platitudes, to satisfy our expectations of comfort and closure. Yet, so far from simply constituting a defeat, these offered stones – the hard grains of Thomas’s poetry – provide alternative rewards.
Poetry may not provide what we most want or think we need. Yet it has the power to make us revise and reorient our desires. Man does not live on the bread of prose alone. And stones are not only stones.
Poetry does not possess the power to effect direct and measurable change in the world. It does not, at present, possess the power of mass-appeal. Yet it does have the potential to stand the test of time in ways that placards and blog-posts do not.
A poem is an artefact, not an argument. It does not possess the power of rational persuasion. Yet it may humble our pride and confound our preconceptions. And it has the power to offer immediately and enduringly meaningful experiences.
Here is found the real power of poetry. The power of its language to shape, shatter and re-shape the world; not only our individual worldviews, but the very fabric of shared meanings. The power of metaphor and paradox to transcend the binaries of reason. The power of genuine craft to counter both caprice and deconstruction; holding cultural, intellectual and spiritual entropy at bay a little longer.
Poetry resists reduction, paraphrase and generalisation. This makes it also a model for how to apprehend other things in the world, as well as for how to encounter other persons, in order to safeguard their peculiar wonder and dignity.
As such, poetry has the power to sustain a belief in the world as more than the sum of its parts; to be an antidote to nihilism and repudiation.
Poetry is, may and must be, meaning-making. This is its true power. Ultimately, it may even enable us to affirm the beauty and meaning of life itself.
This, then, is how poetry empowers, ennobles, and overwhelms. By allowing me to voice more than own, to say more than I know. Enabling me to make something that gives of and onto a reality far transcending myself.
Born in Sweden in 1983, a bilingual poet widely published on both sides of the Atlantic. He made his double debut in 2016 with Alyosha (Augur Press) in English and Karve (Axplock) in Swedish. A new pamphlet, Fordings, is forthcoming from Cardiff-based Marble Poetry. With a PhD in Philosophy, he is also active as a writer and lecturer on the intersections of philosophy, theology and the arts. I live in York.