Dangerous words and how they can change the world

I am beginning to think about next year’s teaching (only thinking; nothing more concrete yet!) and was inspired by an article in the Times Higher a couple of weeks ago, by George Watson. “The Virtue of Verse” asks how seriously we should take poetry, pointing out that it is often – usually – seen as a harmless but ultimately ineffectual or even pointless pastime these days.  Poetry has become tame, a bit twee, even. Yet, as Watson points out, poetry has been genuinely dangerous in some times and places (the Rossettis’ father, Gabriele Rossetti, was exiled from his native Italy largely due to his revolutionary political poetry, and in China and Russia in particular, poets were frequently imprisoned, or worse, for their subversive writings).

Perhaps part of the problem, Watson suggests, is that poetry can be seen as being easy to write – “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, as Wordsworth said. This relegates poetry to the personal and the immediate – not in itself a bad thing – but it strips it of skill, of political importance, of wide-reaching relevance, and instead equates all poetry as a necessary release of emotion – poetry from Milton’s polemical Paradise Lost to Tennyson’s Arthurian idylls, from Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s love sonnets, to the awful poems written by someone you know (everyone knows someone who writes bad poetry, even if they don’t know who they are). I’m not saying poems aren’t necessarily a release of emotion, but that’s not all they are. Some poems – by Hopkins, Plath, Christina Rossetti – can change your sense of yourself.

Watson is asking if we can “believe” poetry, if it is “true”. This is, at best, a fallacious question, and at worst a seriously misleading one. There are lots of things that aren’t “true” which are still significant. Novels are an obvious example, but the best example, for me at least, would have to be myths: they tell us about ourselves and our culture, and they don’t need to be true to be significant and revealing. The same is true of poems. We don’t need to know if a poet felt what they write; what matters is that we believe that they did.  And to read poetry properly – to take in what it says, to enjoy the language rolling through you, to consider seriously the words and the meaning(s) behind them, is dangerous stuff. If people read more poetry, the world would be a better place, but the order of things as we know it would be upset, and we would all become minor revolutionaries. I think perhaps I need to make a list of poems that could change the world. I would start with Paradise Lost, Aurora Leigh, some Dante, and In Memoriam. This year, I want to teach poetry with the conviction that it changes things.

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