Joseph Campbell is on his way, but take a step back.
What is the purpose of a poem?
The best answer, I think, and the simple answer, is the one given by A.C. Bradley in his first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry back in 1901: to provide the pleasure that reading poetry provides. This is a unique pleasure. It may have similarities with other arts or other forms of reading, but it is unique and specific to poetry.
Eliot said much the same thing in ‘The Social Function of Poetry’ before wandering off into the usual self-inflating modernist waffle.
A more recent restatement of Bradley’s point claims that the poem creates a space where a reader is able to think through and in language: ‘through’ meaning both ’ ‘by means of’ and literally ‘moving through’. In a democratic country, adults are able to encounter the poem in the private space of their reading, without being told what to think or how to react or have their hands held in case the poem contains invidious ideological content someone else has decided is bad for them.
It is a private, unique encounter with language. Many people may never have experienced this pleasure but it exists. Some people appear to enjoy fishing and others enjoy riding jet skis or watching football. A shrinking group of people enjoys reading poetry.
Reading the critical discourse about poetry, especially a lot of modern discussions, one could be forgiven for thinking that the people who do the most writing and talking about poetry have never enjoyed reading poems. Or if they have, they have been watching over their shoulder in case someone tells them they shouldn’t be enjoying that poet or those poems.
However, we still talk about Poetry as though all poems and poets were the same. But we don’t read Poetry: we read poems. Poems can be spread on a continuum. At one end are those that seem to approach the character of a postcard chopped into short lines. You might smile or laugh or wince, but you don’t remember them the next day.
And at the other end of the continuum there is the deliberately, if not aggressively, rebarbative poem. Reading these is reminiscent of standing on the wrong side of a door overhearing snatches of the incoherent mumblings of a troubled sleeper.
It’s not an objective scale that can be calibrated. Each reader has the privilege of deciding where he or she would place each poem, and which type of poem he or she enjoys. And that can change even on a daily basis. There are times when reciting Robert Service gets me home, and others when only Geoffrey Hill will do. What is incomprehensible for one reader is beautiful to another: what is too banal for one reader, can be cherished by another. In an ideal world people would accept this the way they do with music.
You can use poems for all kinds of things, from teaching grammar to protesting about inequality, but these uses are secondary and can be done better with other things. There is pleasure in talking about poetry, and arguing about it, and nagging at questions of quality and value, but these are secondary. There is a pleasure in reading about poets, their biographies, letters and statements, but these too are secondary. Unfortunately the secondary has become much louder and much more visible than that private pleasure of reading a poem.
So if you want a reaction, or an audience, don’t write a poem. Write an article about how poetry is dead, or no longer matters, or why you hate it. Write an article denigrating the kind of poetry you don’t like, or the poets you envy. Write about how Poetry is this that or the other and can be used to cure cancer, social inequality and shine submarines. Guaranteed responses and no poems need be involved in the discussion.
One of the oddities of our present time is that despite the enthusiasm people have for opinionating about Poetry (guilty as charged yer honor), despite the conferences and workshops and the courses on offer at university and at writers groups, despite the interviews and opinion pieces, despite the fact more poetry books are being published than at any other time in history, none of this seems to be improving the quality of the poems that are being written. In fact it is possible to argue the opposite is happening.
We’re fast approaching the centennial of 1922. But I’m not sure we’ve come a long way since then and rereading Pound’s assaults on the contemporary poetry scene in pre-First World War London, it all sounds horribly familiar.
One might argue that if poets spent less time writing articles or giving papers, and more time working on their own poems, paying more attention to the quality of their own poems and less to ‘issues in contemporary poetry’, readers like me would have better poems in return for the money we spend on poetry books. If all you're interested in is Poetry, than the quality of the individual poem is almost irrelevant.