From the earliest days of an infant’s life, lullabies, stories and nursery rhymes are offered by the caregiver in a spirit of comfort and love. The child experiences far more than the sound and meaning of the words as the tone, rhythm, silences and breaks elicit an array of emotions and responses, which may vary on each specific reception of the words recited. This process continues throughout life; a line, a phrase, a description may be encountered anew with different reactions and reflections.
Sometimes, the poetic word may reverberate with echoes of long-forgotten memories, joyful, sorrowful, perplexing or soothing; sometimes, the poem may jolt the listener or reader into a hitherto new perspective, a novel understanding and appreciation of familiar-bound assumptions. Always, poetry is important in the lives of human beings, even when this importance is experienced unconsciously and without comment.
“Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.” With these words, Sigmund Freud acknowledged the power of poetry to access and communicate experiences, thoughts and feelings which are often unavailable to other modes of inquiry and expression. Our human world seems to ebb and flow in constant efforts at progress and improvement. With ever-greater advances in technology and science, problems are solved, difficulties are eased and new discoveries are made, which promise greater control and manipulation of the universe; simultaneously, each progressive advancement is accompanied by questions and doubts as new problems appear to replace those which have been apparently solved.
Life remains complex and challenging, and the inner, private experience of the individual remains mysterious and indefinable. However, this is the world explored and expressed through the medium of poetry. The poetic word does not seek to merely describe or recount – it is not directly aimed at rational or intellectual reflection – and the reaction it elicits is not confined to mental processes. Rather, poetry touches the inner world of the heart and the soul; it dares to articulate the otherwise silent voice of passion, emotion and the whole range of feelings that characterize the experience of being human.
In this way, poetry touches the core, the truth of the human being, and it dares to question conventional assumptions regarding the human experience. Thus, William Wordsworth addresses the paradoxical nature of the human experience as he reminds us of the basic contradiction between our essential solitude and our equally essential connection with others; he claims that “we have all of us one human heart,” but simultaneously, “points have we all of us within our souls where all stand single.”
Philip Larkin articulates the poignant and commonly experienced conflict between honesty and kindness, the intensity of which appears to expand according to the degree of intimacy being experienced:
“Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.”
Even with those whom we love it is not always possible to be completely honest. From Homer to Shakespeare, from Bob Dylan to Seamus Heaney, and from the poetic word reverberating in each person’s life, we receive glimpses of reality and of experience that cannot be articulated in other forms.
We need the truth, the courage and the honesty of poetry to keep us real, to keep us connected with what really matters and to continually lift the veil of familiarity and camouflage which disguises and distorts our understanding of the human condition.
Poetry matters because it combines beauty and truth, pain and joy, hope and despair. It accepts the poignancy of the human condition while it celebrates its resilience and potentialities; it rejoices in the fact that we are “human, all too human” and that, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Poetry answers to a universal human need to go beyond conventional modes of thought and expression, and it continually opens us to new possibilities and new ways of being.