Many see poetry as far removed from everyday communication. Generally, it would be acceptable to say that one was harassed by ‘a million mosquitoes’ when there were probably no more than thirty. Or to characterise a satay as ‘sweet’ when, really, it had a hint of citrus, a trace of fish sauce, a few bitter, burnt nuts. When using language on this pragmatic level, the underpinning criterion is that of intelligibility: Are my words sufficient to put my point across? With poetry, there is a greater sense of responsibility. To the poet, it is imperative that words — brittle and mutable and fleeting as they may be — are deployed with the utmost concern for both clarity and connotation, understanding and undertone.
Despite this, Plato warns against poetry’s power to ‘seduce’ the intellect. In The Republic, he contends that poetry leads us away from the Truth arrived at through logical argument (and the capital is here deliberate, for Plato was using the term in its putative, oppressive sense — Truth that is ‘out there’, untouched by culture and context). As poets focus on the sensual and empower emotion, Plato feels they celebrate the world as it is to the ‘everyman’, not the philosopher. And as such, they are no different to the Sophists, Ancient Greece’s masters of rhetoric, who swayed audiences through emotive language instead of logic.
Plato’s view betrays what ties philosophy with both poetry and rhetoric: the idea that words are immensely powerful. In their various forms and combinations, words have the capacity to inspire and transform, to enrich and enliven. They can also injure, bemuse, denigrate and eradicate. It’s this spectrum of effect that poetry manages to access, thereby articulating aspects of the world that elude overly logical and pragmatic thinking. To be clear, I’m not denying that philosophy is crucial to our understanding of the world (I studied philosophy in university and fancy myself a philosopher, after all). Nor do I disagree that sometimes it would be excessive to use words with poetic exactitude (my work as an editor plays itself out here). Rather, I’m focusing on the point — which Plato himself admits — that poetry helps to foster an inclination to appreciate beauty: it trains us in the appreciation of Truth.
In more contemporary times, poet Seamus Heaney discusses how poetry can ‘redress’ aspects of this world, allowing us to see it in a more consoling, more exciting light. And the source of these alternative views is the poet’s imagination. But for these to be tangible to their readers, poets must tap into a ‘new world’ in which the ideas and ideologies that predominate are theirs. What results is a sort of ‘creation through destruction’, whereby the socio-political structures of the ‘real world’ are usurped by the poets’ imagined ones. It is this that leads to poetry’s distinctive use of words. Metaphors and metonyms are not merely gratuitous diversions from convention; rather, they are the indispensable tools with which poets actualise their worlds. How else are poets to describe the particular yellow of a sunrise, or the heaviness of the chest that results from watching a loved one being shot?
To Heaney, what poetry does is offer non-poets ‘another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way’. The truth (lowercase this time) that he identifies may not be universal in Plato’s sense, but it is nevertheless universal because it highlights the shared-ness of the world being written about. Despite the need to create a world for themselves, poets still take inspiration from the ‘real world’— why else would figurative language be necessary, if not to link the imagined with the real? This ‘empowers’ readers in two ways: first, because the same world is seen through different (more poetic) eyes; and second, because these poetic views can be incorporated into the everyday. Much like the prophets of yore (and, indeed, philosopher Martin Heidegger has equated poets with prophets), it seems the duty of poets lies in seeing a little more than is needed, in hearing whispers in abandoned places, in rousing the populace from its complacency — in offering more truth than Truth can ever provide.
In this light, Plato’s characterisation of poetry can seem a little unwarranted. Poets may not bring Truth, but they do invoke truths of their own creation: truths of a subjective kind. So it’s no wonder that, unlike pragmatic communicators, poets are so scrupulous with their words — after all, these words bear the weight of ‘prophecy’. A colleague (a fellow editor with a PhD in poetry) once told me that, as part of editing, she asks writers to justify each word they’ve used in a stanza or paragraph. The reasoning behind her (yes, quite severe) method is that poets should know their words intimately. Auden encapsulates this idea well when he wrote:
Language is prosaic [or, in terms of my dichotomy, pragmatic] to the degree that it does not matter what particular word is associated with an idea … Language is poetic to the degree that it does.
Indeed, truly poetic works are those that have not only mastered this process of refinement, but also revel in it. The poet’s gift to the reader is a world that has been carefully conjured, lovingly built of imagery, line-break and rhyme. For what else is poetry, if not poeisis (Greek for ‘creation’)?
Adolfo Aranjuez is the editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books and its annual anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing. He is also a nonfiction editor and sub-editor of the literary journal Voiceworks, and the editor of arts and culture magazine Fragmented. This post is a modified excerpt from Adolfo’s ‘Editor’s Introduction’ for Award Winning Australian Writing 2011. The 2012 edition, which will feature a foreword by the 2011 Montreal Poetry Prize winner, Mark Tredinnick, is due for release later this year.