Dude, what ISN’T it for!!! I use it as a coaster, doorstop, paperweight, flyswatter, trivet, table-jiggling stabilizer, kindling, as absorbant material in baby nappies, to patch holes in my walls during the cold winter months! It goes on and on!
But seriously, if we’re going to ask questions, how about this little one that’s been nagging at me the last few years: with poetry surviving several thousand years of countless wars, fires, dark ages, population decimating pandemics, ethnic cleansings, brutal totalitarian regimes, periods of indifference, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteor strikes, and everything short of the sun blowing up, WHY THE FUCK ARE WE STILL SPECULATING ABOUT WHETHER POETRY HAS A FUTURE!?!!?! But I digress…
I went to read a few of my own poems, but also to ask the audience a question: what is poetry for?
The answers were varied, but many embraced emotion: “to draw emotion and deepen insight”; “to enlighten in both senses of the word”; “to turn a rush of emotion into a form of music”; “to engage with emotional reality”; “to make language work as hard as possible”; “for singing out loud”; “to encourage social awakening”; “to delight so that it may inform”; “to illuminate the world”; “to clarify and express feeling”. People see poetry as the means of expressing powerful emotions, but often that will rein in the imagination, and produce a one-dimensional statement rather than a representation of the world in words.
I remember during the 1991 Gulf war, when the midnight bombing raids were being carried live on TV, we used to receive numerous poems at the Guardian from people expressing their horror at the grisliness of war. In times of stress – look in the bereavements column of your local paper – people turn to poetry. But it is almost invariably bad poetry: all emotion, no tranquillity.
The simplest and best answer I got at the event in Oxford was “for paying attention”. Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, echoes that phrase. “One of the things poetry gives all of us is a way of developing an attentiveness to life, a way of observing the world, of noticing things and seeing them differently,” she says. A good poem looks closely at the world; does that Martian thing of trying to see it for the first time. Everything else – the emotional charge, the lyrical delight, the intellectual pleasure – is secondary.