What is the value and purpose of poetry? Is it mere window dressing to language or some attempt “to say one thing in terms of another,” as Robert Frost declared?
For many of us, poetry remains something of an oddity, or perhaps an acquired taste. But, given its longstanding presence among the great authors (down to the present day), I suspect there’s something of a secret in verse worth exploring, if only to understand poetry’s effects on our world.
At the recommendation of a colleague and friend, David Rothman, I recently discovered Michael Oakeshott’s “The voice poetry in the conversation of mankind.” A renowned English political philosopher, Oakeshott has provided us with an apt description of poetry’s place in the larger discourse of our race. While noting the dominant roles of practical and scientific voices, Oakeshott highlights the distinct contribution of poetry to our human experience: recovering some of our child-like efforts to make sense of the world with image-saturated language:
To speak is to make images…Words in everyday use are not signs with fixed and invariable usages; they are poetic images. [As children] we speak an heroic language of our own invention, not merely because we are incompetent in our handling of symbols, but because we are moved not by the desire to communicate but by the delight of utterance. And however immersed we may become in practical or scientific enterprise, anybody who recollects the confusion it was to be young will have a ready ear for the voice of poetry.
Surely there is some advantage to recovering a child-like wonder for those “Presences / That passion, piety or affection knows.” And, if so, perhaps the poets can help us regain our rightful place in the cosmos: delighting in the discovery of a truly dappled world.