Is Poetry Relevant to Ordinary People?
When I talk to people about my passion for poetry, they often tell me that they are not ‘intellectual’ or ‘educated’ enough to engage with the topic, and that it doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. It usually seems to me that most of these people have come to dismiss the concept of poetry because they are uncomfortable with the word itself, and with the stereotypes associated with it. Fundamentally, they are not entirely sure what poetry really is.
Defining poetry – or any art form for that matter – is a task fraught with inherent difficulties. Poetry, like music and song – comes from a place that nobody commands. There are no experts in the world of art, only people at various stages of the cultivation of personal taste. That is not to say that there is never any element of objectivity – there are certainly definite characteristics that provide the framework within which to consider the various art forms of human society. In the case of poetry, structural variables such as rhyme and metre are relevant as well as identifying features like figurative language. It is usually expected that poems should contain either lavish imagery that stimulates the senses or pithy aphorisms that stimulate abstract thought and express general truths. In terms of literary quality, a poem should in theory be judged according to the extent to which it is able to meaningfully stimulate either the senses or the faculties of large numbers of people.
Whilst there is some value in discussing the mechanics of poetry in this way, it is precisely this kind of scholastic definition of poetic merit that turns so many people off of poetry in the first place. By making poetry sound complicated and inaccessible, many of its advocates serve to create the impression that it is an art form full of pseudo-intellectualism and sophistry. But poetry is not necessarily a high-brow thing, and the content of poems often has much more to do with the deeply personal – and sometimes less than refined – aspects of life than it has with lofty ideas and haughty expressions. There is nothing particularly intellectual about Charles Baudelaire’s declaration that we should ‘be always drunk’. Or about Leonard Cohen’s recollections of a ‘noble young woman who unfastened her jeans in the front seat of my jeep’. Yet both lines can be found in anthologies of poetry across the world, and both come from poets who have moved and inspired untold thousands of people.
It never occurred to me that I needed a particularly solid framework to work with in order to determine my feelings towards a piece of art. The framework is something an individual has to work on and cultivate over time. The process of engaging with a poem is an intuitive one – sometimes the rhymes and rhythms seem to capture something important, and often they don’t. Discovering a poem whose sounds and images speak to you in some way is an ecstatic experience, and is extremely difficult to describe. If it was possible to explore these ideas with ordinary language then poetry would be redundant, but it has something to do with musicality and metaphysical truth.
When ordinary people feel that poetry is irrelevant to their lives, it is because they have only ever heard people discussing poetry in language that is irrelevant. They have heard petty arguments over semantics and syntax, and have never had the chance to simply read through poems from different eras and traditions. The concept of poetry is more useful as an adjective than a noun: anything written on a page which has the ability to stir or inspire an individual is poetic to that individual. Form and structure are far less important in art than taste and emotion. A work of art does not need to justify itself to anyone: art simply is. Pontificating professors and conceited critics are indeed irrelevant to the important things in the lives of ordinary people, but poetry can be as relevant as anyone chooses to make it.