I asked a bunch of poets the above question. I’ll feature their answers here each week until I run out or find more poets to answer the question…
“I would have answered this question differently if I’d been asked it before my first novel came out (last year). I would have said something about the desire to communicate feelings, reach out to the reader, explore important and suppressed emotions, themes, perspectives, etc.
I’m not sure about any of that anymore, because prose fiction does all of those things so much more effectively, it seems.
The responses to my novel, from non-writers, critics as well as fellow writers, have been numerous, and incredibly sophisticated, astute and engaged. It seems people are really willing and/or mentally prepared to appreciate fiction so much more than poetry.
It probably has a lot to do with education. I remember studying 1984 and World War I poetry in Year 12 (in Brisbane); when studying the novel, our teacher went out of his way to define the genre of satire, the politics of Orwell’s society, the references, the story’s plot, characters, motifs, symbolism, etc. When teaching the poems, however, he told us something about the ‘beauty’ of poetry. And that was that.
So people are not really trained to appreciate poetry. So why bother with it?
Well, I suppose I agree with the philosophers, like Foucault and Badiou, who see poetry as a way to rescue language (and perhaps also humanity) from the discourses/situations of daily exploitation and utilitarian usage.
Language is often nothing other than a banal, empty communication tool at the mercy of commerce, society, knowledge, community, survival, etc, but poetry (especially since Mallarme) has been about breaking with this instrumentalisation of language.
So that’s why I’m still interested, and will continue to remain interested, in writing poetry. Poetry renders language, as Foucault might have it, ‘useless and vital’, or as Badiou has shown, poetry produces truths. I really like that idea.”
More answers next week.