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In defence of poetry

Poetry is for everyone. This is something I feel very strongly about.

What makes poetry? To me, poetry is a simple affair. Poetry is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, or describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways. It is a moment of extraordinary insight, and simple in that it may only be delivered from what is immediately real and familiar to us. Perhaps this is what W.S. Merwin meant when he contended that poetry “is something before it is about something”.

Consider Bashō’s celebrated “Old Pond”:

old pond
a frog jumps in
water’s sound.

— Matsuo Bashō / Translated by William J. Higginson

What the poem describes is ordinary: the mundane act of a frog jumping into an old pond. Yet it has been transformed into something other. It has become a subtle, yet powerful sequence of events in the mind’s eye. There are two sources of tension – between imagery and sound, and tranquility and disturbance. By observing the ordinary act of a frog jumping into an old pond and by revealing the extraordinary qualities within in an extraordinary way, Bashō has created poetry.

Poetry is also an affair with language. It may begin with substance, yet it is form, defined by the use of language, which helps reveal this substance, be it abstract or strictly formalistic. This may amount to “describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways”. Furthermore, it may well be that in the process of writing, poetry may begin with form. Merwin again states that “a poem begins out of what you don’t know, and you begin not by having a good idea but by hearing something in the language.”

I concede that my definition of what makes poetry faces difficulties. What of poetry which emphasises form over substance? What of types of poetry which aim to achieve different goals other than the revelation of the extraordinary, such as the setting forth lengthy narratives, say for instance in epic poetry? It would be intellectually dishonest not to address such problems. However, poetry is profoundly personal; as it is, the short answer would be that I do not consider these ‘poetry’ in the true sense. It may be that they are only poetry for having adopted recognised and aesthetically viable forms of verse and rhyme.

So it has been contended that poetry is a moment of extraordinary insight. But what use of this moment of beauty? Why does poetry matter? Consider the following poem, “Learning by Heart”, by Abbas Raza (founding editor of 3quarksdaily):

He recited a short poem to me
Which he had learned by heart
Not to impress or intimidate
Me, or anyone else,

But just in case one year
Spring might be late in coming
And he need cheer his friends
Saddened by the dearth of birdsong.

Or perhaps for that moment in love
When he would be struck speechless,
When he knew that he would need
To borrow another man’s tongue.

Or maybe just so that if he wanted
He could tie a brightly colored cravat
On the neck of an autumn crepuscule
Too-soberly dressed in a charcoal suit.

— S. Abbas Raza (for Robin Varghese, April 8, 2010)

The fact remains that human life has to be nourished with some further beauty, some meaningful insight which stands out against the drabness of the ordinary. In this respect, poetry is no different from the fine arts. It is, however, distinguishable and more immediately relevant to us, being a manifestation of the primary means by which we communicate – language.

Moreover, much has been written and said about how one of the redeeming features of humanity is its capacity to be astonished. This is accompanied by humanity’s need to be astonished, in order for humanity to transcend itself. I opine that to be exposed to the extraordinary within the ordinary, in an extraordinary fashion, one necessarily experiences the frisson of astonishment.

In conclusion, there is much to be said about poetry. Poetry is more accessible than it seems, and is of direct relevance to our very beings: Poetry is simpler than what it delivers. Poetry allows us to transcend the grind of humanity by astonishing us with the beauty of the extraordinary. Poetry is but one amongst the many vital sugars which a life lived to its fullest must be sustained upon.

With its relevance and its oft-overlooked accessibility, poetry is for everyone.

A caveat: Raza suggests that we ought to share poetry, whilst Yeats cynically observes in the third verse of “Adam’s Curse” that this has become desperately unfashionable:

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

— W.B. Yeats

This is perhaps a matter best left to good taste and discretion.



From Lyrics to Music: Inaugural Post

Songs are more than the sum of their parts, and to judge them on the merit of their individual components would be to do them a disservice.

All too often, however, before we even begin making sense of lyrics, it is the music which gives us our first impression of a song. The impression invariably stays, and we are often tempted to judge a song entirely on its immediate appeal. I don’t set much store for that. Is there, and should there be a justification for assessing songs, and even entire genres on such a basis? Even if there were, the greater injustice would be that in doing so, we risk precluding songs which require an appreciation that begins with the lyrics.

In a generation where ‘good’, commercially viable music is often defined by heavy electronic beats and ready-made hooks and riffs, we run the risk of forgoing good music in our ignorance of good lyrics – or, should I say, good songwriting.

“From Lyrics to Music” is a series on good songwriting which begins with an appreciation of well-written lyrics.

Do stay tuned.