What’s the Point of Poetry?

It certainly isn’t written to be studied by A Level students, but A Level students accept they have to study it, often with whole exam papers devoted to it. But poetry books are expensive because of the laws of economics – fewer are sold, so the unit cost is higher. Some people, I am afraid, claim to hate poetry. Yet there are moments of crisis when people tend to turn to poetry, exemplified famously in the recital of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral:

To restrict poetry to such moments, though, is maudlin. Political and poetic revolutionaries like Blake and Shelley would have had something to say about that (read Blake’s ‘London’ and Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’). Poetry can, in a relatively small number of words, challenge and provoke; its rhythms and patterns can make that provocation memorable. I have referred to this interview with Simon Armitage before, but if you haven’t seen it, it is worth listening to his argument that poetry is a form of dissent; it is the job for a poet to be subversive, he suggests:

I also referred in February to the impression American poet Amanda Gorman made at President Biden’s inauguration. In this talk, she argues compellingly that using our voice is a political choice, and for her, that choice is to use her voice in poetry:


That sense of voice is certainly used by this young Australian slam poet, inviting us to breathe.

The poet Wendy Cope argues that poets need a wide frame of reference and need to listen to the voices of other poets in order to hone their own. This article is thought-provoking, especially if you consider writing poetry yourself.

If you want to dip into poetry and explore a vast array of different styles and subjects, here are some good sites. On the Poetry Archive, you can listen to poets reading their work as well as read the texts, while the Poetry Society is a treasure trove of poetry and information about poets. For a really good arrangement of poetry by historical timeline, head over to the Poetry by Heart site.

Finally, Billy Collins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’, which challenges the ‘rules’ of the study of poetry by arguing for instinctive, explorative response:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide


or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,


or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.


I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.


But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.