What is the point of poetry?

I found myself asking this question during English lessons at school fairly frequently. Until we got around to studying some poems by Stephen Spender. Spender isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you talk about English poets but how could you not take to someone who claimed never to have passed an exam in his life? My school was all about passing exams and I guess I was rebelling against that. Poetry can transport our thoughts, imagination and feelings. An example is one of favourite Spender poems : “An Elementary Classroom in a Slum” and I reproduce it in full here :

Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor.
The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-
seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,
His lesson from his desk. At back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,
Of squirrel’s game, in the tree room, other than this.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this world, are world,
Where all their future’s painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky,
Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, and the map a bad example
With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal–
For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
All of their time and space are foggy slum.
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

Unless, governor, teacher, inspector, visitor,
This map becomes their window and these windows
That shut upon their lives like catacombs,
Break O break open ’till they break the town
And show the children green fields and make their world
Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues
Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open
History is theirs whose language is the sun.

I’m not going to spoil the poem by commenting on it. But it reinforced thoughts I was already beginning to form. Firstly gratitude for the privileged situation that I had been born into in terms of possessions, upbringing and education. But secondly and perhaps more importantly an empathy for those who hadn’t been so fortunate. Sympathy for the underdog, the oppressed and the vulnerable. I’m not sure that has ever left me.

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4 thoughts on “What is the point of poetry?

  1. That is such a powerful poem! What a deep and moving picture – you feel almost suffocated yourself, and so relieved at the prospect of hope offered at the end. Yes, we are all so very lucky for things that we just look at every day and take for granted. I totally agree, David!

    • Thanks Jo. I think you’re right about the prospect of hope being offered but I wonder how strongly the poet feels it given the overwhelming oppressiveness and despair which precedes it in the bulk of the poem.
      I have to admit too to admiring the war poets like Owen and Sassoon where the negativity and hopelessness is unrelieved so that tells you the sort of person I am.

  2. Those last four lines remind me of sitting inside a classroom by the window longing for freedom. I should appreciate my schooling more, I hope one day I will, but it’s always seemed to me to have been a long drawn out time when I could have been doing other more interesting things. I am enormously grateful for reading and writing though.

  3. Thanks Lorna. That’s an interesting comment about your schooldays seeming a long drawn out time. I guess you’re right but we have little choice in the matter. I have definite doubts about whether they are the best days of your life.
    I do recall having an excellent history teacher who brought the subject alive. Unfortunately he was a rare exception in a sea of mediocrity.

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