Point of Poetry

Saying “I don’t like poetry” is like saying “I don’t like books” – there are so many different types of poems, in so many different styles and forms, that it’s virtually impossible to group them into a single category.

In an ode to the odes, poetry critic Stephen Burt demonstrates through lyrical explication that the practice of poetry is tied to being human. Says Burt, “The patterns in poems show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened, but what it was like to be a person like that — to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave.” It is, Burt suggests, our ability to imagine the hypothetical that makes poetry work.

Burt uses the example of Rae Armantrout’s poem, ‘The Garden’ which shows his passion for deciphering the meaning behind the words but also the apparent confusing nature of poetry. 

Language poets such as Armantrout seem to make no sense to someone who hasn’t seen it before. A jumble of random words & phrases, no straightforward structure or rhythm – but the closer you look the more you can unravel. 

Oleander: coral
from lipstick ads in the 50’s.

Fruit of the tree of such knowledge.

To “smack”
(thin air)
meaning kiss or hit.

It appears
in the guise of outworn usages
because we are bad?

Big masculine threat,
insinuating and slangy.

– Rae Armantrout

It is unclear sometimes what poet’s intentions are but us, as the reader, can always guess and it doesn’t hurt to be wrong.

As Burt explains the poem is about the “Garden of Eden and the Fall…in which sex as we know it, death and guilt come into the world at the same time. It is also about how appearances appear to deceive…how culture can sweep us along”. Burt continues for about another couple of minutes unravelling the large ideas and small details in which he understands from this poem. 

Burt jokes as he tells the audience he emailed Armantrout and she confirmed that he had interpreted the poem in the ‘correct’ way according to Rae’s first meaning. But for the average reader it doesn’t hurt to find a new interpretation. 

But in so many ways poetry is the opposite of work: It can’t apply force or move matter; it can only be, on a page. And though a poem doesn’t make things happen, it happens — every time someone reads it.

“We meditate on past and future, life and death, above and below and it can make us afraid” – Burt on ‘the brave man’ poem by Wallace Stevens

Some read poetry for:

  • Discovering and exploring the deeper meanings and connections of the world. 
  • Self-understanding
  • Moral strengthening
  • Escape from the world
  • Discovering truths, even the ugly ones: Wilfred Owen’s war poetry
  • Beauty 

Some believe poetry is for: 

  • Performance art 
  • Allows us to transcend some of the limitations of normal speech

Some believe that poetry is powerless – it doesn’t change anything.

And that is okay, each person has their own opinion and rationally we know that the death of Yeats has no bearing whatsoever on the weather conditions of the summer day – because poetry makes nothing happen.

But it evokes a common human feeling, it can transport without moving anywhere itself and perhaps that is the point of poetry.

Stephen Burt: Why people need Poetry

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