Poetry: why bother?

Most people today never read a poem. Though I do read plenty of contemporary poetry myself, I’m seldom persuaded to linger over it. What I look for but don’t often find is something worth more than passing attention. I want to be stopped in my tracks by a phrase or a line or (if I’m really lucky) by a whole poem that deserves to be read again, remembered and revisited. Too many of them lack this arresting quality.

But why bother to read poetry at all, let alone write it (as I also do)? Here’s my answer: it’s worth doing because poetry, at its best, deploys words with a startling impact that peels away from our perceptions what Coleridge called a “film of familiarity”. This eye-opening quality lets us see some aspect of experience more clearly. I’ll mention examples below.

Everyday language is too tired to make much of an impression on us. We’re surrounded by worn-out words, facile clichés, jaded expressions. While it’s not surprising that daily conversation hardly ever includes anything strikingly fresh and memorable, the written word should be chosen with more care — but most of what journalists write is instantly forgettable, and any statements emanating from politicians or business leaders (not to mention ‘celebrity influencers’) are almost always stuffed with stale platitudes.

Instead of inflicting on us the weary comparisons and dreary metaphors that riddle ordinary communication, a successful poem can jolt us alert with ingeniously crafted turns of phrase. Being (normally) segmented into lines, it has the potential to disrupt our usual habit of hasty reading, so we’re encouraged to pause and reflect. Poetry can devise inventive images and haunting rhythms that cause us to sit up and take notice.


Plucking phrases out of their context won’t give a full picture but may indicate the kind of thing I have in mind.

Here, then, are a few quotations from an excellent little book just published under the imprint of Recent Work Press. It’s by prize-winning Sydney-based poet Denise O’Hagan and its title is Anamnesis. As a footnote tells us, this ancient Greek word signifies “a calling to mind of past events, or recollection.”

In one of her most memorable pieces in this book, O’Hagan sustains a single perfectly controlled sentence through half a dozen three-line stanzas, each of which begins “If I could …” — like this, for instance:

If I could impart to you a tiny fraction
Of the shimmering strength of a single strand of spiderweb
Bobbled with dew, swaying in the early morning light

There’s descriptive precision in those lines, transmitting beautifully to a reader’s imagination what the speaker wishes she “could impart” — yet the poem’s point goes well beyond its portrayal of delicate details in the external world, and beyond a general sentiment of wanting to find words that would do justice to certain objects or scenes. What it gradually reveals is that every stanza’s heartfelt “If I could” is addressed to a particular individual who faces specific physical challenges, tenderly evoked, which the speaker would dearly love to alleviate — if she could.

Although any poem that deserves a reader’s close attention will normally contain vivid imagery, those visual or figurative elements are only part of what makes it memorable. It will also contain a patterning of sounds. This may include traditional auditory features such as rhyme and metre but in contemporary writing it’s likely to be a less obviously melodious kind of musicality, less insistently regular and more subtle. Here is how another poem by O’Hagan begins — it’s not dramatic in itself, just quietly conversational (like the voice in many of her poems), but has a steady rhythm that lays a foundation for what turns into a reminiscence about glimpses of love among the ruins of a former Roman city:

I tread the wide slabbed stone street, lined
With pines …

Through its sequence of monosyllabic words, this simple opening conveys a sense of measured footsteps pacing over the solid paving of an ancient yet durable pathway. So it’s genuinely pedestrian — not in the plodding sense, but in taking us with the speaker on an unhurried walk that will lead us back in time.

As a reader, I don’t like to be shouted at. The poetry of whispers is generally more to my taste, and that’s what I find in Denise O’Hagan’s writing. It often has the quality of murmurous meditations on seemingly small incidents, gently drawing out their significance. From the same book, I’ll give one further example: a fine understated poem called “Love was almond-shaped.” It recalls a cherished moment when a mother once showed a child how to split open almond shells —

… Holding both my hands in one of hers,
Steadying my palm, spanning my fingers
Across the stern metal jowls of the nutcracker …

The poem shapes other images succinctly around that central one of the small hands supported by a larger maternal clasp to help the child with mastering a skill and obtaining nourishment. Something so slight that it might ordinarily pass without notice has been lifted up, brought into the light and infused with warmth by the poet’s skilful choice of language.

I quoted earlier the phrase “film of familiarity.” It was coined two centuries ago by Samuel T. Coleridge, who remarked that the poetry of his friend Wordsworth achieved its singular power …

… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which (in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude) we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

In the poetry I value most, the shaping of words can reveal those little unspectacular “wonders” that heedless hearts would otherwise ignore.

16 thoughts on “Poetry: why bother?

  1. Your words and understanding and suggestions for each to devour as they will are more than tempting Ian. I have been delving into the concept of age, having survived cancer in recent years. I am also delving into the world of mantras and meaning and reading lots of Australia books. I am going to research your volumes because in know they will be significant. You stand out to me as one man of brilliance and I always admired your articulation of language. I’m still learning, Ian, and I’ll never stop. Even in the after life I’ll be surrounded by books, crochet hooks, knitting needles, embroadeey needles and multiple threads. Yes threads of life too. You stand out as one of my outstanding mentors and I have admired you since I got to know you.

  2. Thank you for all that you’ve expressed here, Carol — some of it evidently drawing on private struggles and your experience of surmounting them. It’s not surprising that poetry has stirred deep feelings in you. I hope all goes well for you in the future.

  3. I agree so strongly with the idea of using words that give you a jolt. If you don’t get the jolt it doesn’t seem like poetry is doing its job. I am also a love of Coleridge, who somehow seems to keep the jolts coming. Your post is a pleasure to read. Many thanks.

  4. Thank you, Pat — good to hear from you, and to know you agree. Three cheers for Coleridge. Play it again, Sam! Best wishes for your own writing.

  5. such skill, if I could impart to you my memories of walking the cobbled streets of old Sweden half as well I would.

  6. Nicely put, Dorothy — but the very fact that O’Hagan’s lines have brought that recollection to your mind is a pleasure in itself, isn’t it?

  7. Thank you so much, Ian, for your generous reading of ‘Anamnesis’, and your sensitivity to my ‘murmurous meditations’. You’ve highlighted qualities I am forever chasing, but never quite sure I’ve caught – which may be part of their allure 🙂

  8. Dear Ian
    Hans and I applaud your blog post about the power of freshly created expressions as an antidote to irritating clichés, dead metaphors and plain misuse of words by uneducated journalists. Even if we do not read – let alone write – poetry the way you do, we fully understand and appreciate your point. In our own language we find a rich source in Danish hymns and songs – many celebrating nature: the changing seasons, the landscape, the sea etc. in wonderfully crafted imagery.

    Isn´t today – January 20th – The Eve of Sct Agnes?
    Each Christmas – season of rare, expensive oriental spices – I am reminded of Keats´ “lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon” and “spiced dainties… from silken Samarkand to cedar´d Lebanon”. Apropos of Keats: In autumn, walking on the many-coloured fallen leaves in our part of Copenhagen (which prides itself of the fact that every citizen has a view from their house of at least one tree), I think of this expression: “Keats of the pavement” – once said about John Updike in a New Yorker review (?). I used to have a faible for J.U., and the phrase has stayed with me: I knew exactly what it meant. “The film of familiarity” was removed from the streets of Frederiksberg.

    Greetings from Hans and Dorte

  9. I’m delighted, Dorte, to have this thoughtful response, so eloquently expressed, from friends on the far side of the world. Yes, it’s The Eve of St Agnes (happy birthday!), and Keats’s richly embroidered narrative poem is a great source of memorable images. Thank you for the reminder!

  10. Just so, Denise. And (if my recall is correct) the Russian formalists, similarly, saw literary art as “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

  11. I’m not easily impressed, Denise, so I can assure you that your work has won my admiration on its considerable merits. Best wishes for the writing that lies ahead.

  12. Dear Ian,
    The title and first line of your review invites an audience and captures the ‘one second glancers’! You have the gift of holding on to them with lucid lines until the final paragraph. By then only the “the heedless hearts” and aficionados have turned the page still seeking perfection – no wonder they all perish in the desert! I have been impressed with Denise’s poetry since I came across her work on LinkedIn. It’s clarity of expression often with less worn words is a feature of her poems.Early words that stun are important because images may only appear after a number of passes. You are a fine critic and writer. They don’t always go hand-in-hand!

  13. Hello Ian, you will remember me as a visual man, less a writer. But I was attracted to your article and will now actually try and read more poetry! For a start, the Denise O’Hagan looks enticing. I was taken deeper into poetry during that Lancaster University linguistics program when Michael Short explored the creative use of language in his fiction course. Mick brought in advertising copy writing too (not the cliched stuff), as a very creative exploitation of language not dissimilar to poetry. In my own graphic work, I’ve always tried to ‘anchor’ visual images with a word or phrase that evokes the readers previous seeings and ‘return that which is familiar to its original strangeness’.

  14. Nice to hear from you, Cal. I’ve had good reason to appreciate your visual design skills, not least because you did a fine job on the typography and layout of one of my non-fiction books many years ago. And yes, creative uses of language extend well beyond poetry. The link that you mention between visual imagery and words is often demonstrated arrestingly in book cover designs — an interest we share.

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