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Poetry, power, prayer: Part 2



So what is it that is so special about poetry? I’m not going to suggest that poetry is superior to prose. Poetry, like prose, can be dreadfully badly-written: hence the classic collection of rotten poems titled Verse and Worse. But poetry does behave and function in a different way from prose. Let me give two examples (you see, oh lucky readers, how bounteous is this column. You don’t just get Dunton banging on, you get poems as well, and at no extra charge). The first is a dirge (funeral song) from a little-known play by Shakespeare titled Cymbeline: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun Or the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task has done, Home art gone and ta’en thy wages. The second is from the poem sequence Synapse by Antjie Krog, whom I consider to be South Africa’s finest living poet: feeling her way the snail dilates her foot shies back then yearns open drags prods lubricates an epithelial surge pushes her over the first scurf the scent delirium her slender dendrites sob slime plumes her tentacle eyes punch upwards she is ecstatic Now, at first glance these two texts seem worlds apart. Yet, obviously, neither is prose—the sort of language you expect when you read articles in thepost. What is distinctive to both is the way the words lean upon each other, depend on each other, resonate with each other, to create meaning and feeling through a very concentrated kind of language organization. Shakespeare, for example, uses rhyme to organize his thought (sun / done / gone; rages / wages); Krog uses sounds that mirror each other (drags / prods; sob / slime / plumes). And the way they do this gives us pleasure. Prose doesn’t normally behave like this; it doesn’t have time to do so. There are other ways of looking at this matter. The UK government has recently proposed to downgrade the teaching of poetry in schools, confirming what we already suspected, that they have cloth ears. The Guardian newspaper commented on the decision as follows: “the unresolved, open-minded nature of so much poetry, where meaning has to be extracted from language, is all too appropriate for our present age of uncertainty” (or, as the poet W.H. Auden put it, this “age of anxiety”). It’s not all doom and gloom for the world’s poets. Following the triumphant performance by 22 year-old African-American Amanda Gorman of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, op-eds have been appearing in US newspapers calling for an expansion of poetry education in schools. But the UK government’s decision is a big step in the wrong direction. Numerous British writers protested the government’s decision (and I shall get on to the relationship between poetry and power / politics next week). Michael Rosen reminded us that “poetry offers a view on the world that is playful, contemplative, mysterious, questioning, and one that is often interested in giving readers the chance to hold several different ideas at the same time.” In other words, poetry reaches spots that other forms of discourse may not, using language in ways that, characteristically, they do not. The other British writer I wish to quote is Melvyn Bragg, who argued that “while paintings fade and sculptures crumble, poetry endures in the collective memory. Indeed, when Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his famous sonnet “Ozymandias”, about a statue to a great king that had crumbled into the desert sands, he was nodding to this.” Hold on to that idea, because next week we set out for ancient Egypt and “Ozymandias.” To be continued Chris Dunton

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