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Poetry and the tyranny of relevance

Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

CD9034724Lewis CARROLL 1832 249x300 Poetry and the tyranny of relevanceFor decades the world of poetry has been simultaneously lamenting the supposed demise of its impact on society, and having an internal discussion about whether poetry still has any relevance in the modern world.

The general sentiment appears to be that poetry no longer plays a part in our busy 21st century lives: that the subjects which poetry attempts to address, and the language which it uses to do so, are obsolete and archaic. So, if we follow this reasoning to its end, poetry amounts to nothing more than an outdated mode of artistic expression, incongruous in our modern world.

I would argue however, that this is a pessimistic view, which fails to see the relevance that poetry has, and always will have, as a mode of artistic expression which can enrich our understanding of the world around us.

Poetry is relevant because great poems transcend time. They have the ability to evoke universal feelings which we can all identify with, regardless of the epoch in which we read them in. For instance, I do not have to be an Edwardian gentleman to understand the deep sense of regret and yearning expressed in T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock. The repetition of the phrase; ‘There will be time, there will be time’, articulates with great precision and warmth the exuberance of youth. And when Prufrock later laments, ‘I grow old, I grow old’, we can all understand, and more importantly feel the pathos that he is expressing as he looks back over his life. The reflection on missed opportunities, the procrastination, the realisation that, in fact, there is very little time and that whatever time we do have is precious, is something that we can all identify with. And so this poem is as “relevant” now as it was when it was written almost 100 years ago.

Of course we cannot use one poem as the exemplar of the entire poetic tradition. But we can clearly see from this example that poetry has the power to be relevant on its own terms. The problem emerges however, when the term “relevance” is misused, especially when referring to the arts. In this guise, it takes on an instrumental meaning, the consequence of this being that poetry becomes subject to arbitrary objective standards, which seeks to judge a subjective art form by artificial criteria such as “impact”. And as a result of this, poetry is under pressure to seek relevance on these terms rather than its own. This is a mistake: the relevance of poetry is found in its subjectivity and its ability to connect with individuals who each find their own meaning in the text. As Oscar Wilde rightly noted, “It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors”.

Poetry should not chase relevance within these narrow parameters. It is an art form which adds much to our rich cultural tapestry, and should have the space in which it can express itself fully. The fact that it has to justify its very being is of concern because it underlines the fact that in society we no longer value anything that cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. We should enjoy the tenderness of poems such as She Walks in Beauty on their own terms, without wondering about the wider impact and significance that they may or may not have in 2010.

The heart of poetic expression is the subjective, but simultaneously universal, experience of the world around us, brought to life through the beautiful use of language. We can see that whether it is the surreal nonsense poems of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, or the dark and brooding work of Edgar Allen Poe, poetry has the power to touch us all. And if this is the kind of “relevance” that we are looking at, then poetry is still as pertinent as it ever was. But if we are talking about impact and measuring relevance by vacuous objective criteria, then this is not the sort of relevance that poetry has, and should certainly not seek to attain.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng is a writer on politics and ideology. He is currently interning at the Institute of Ideas and is on the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival. The debate Poetry and the tyranny of relevance took place at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 31 October.

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  • http://twitter.com/riprap007 Nicholas Ripley

    Anwar, I find this argument is confused:

    ‘Poetry is relevant because great poems transcend time.’

    The definition of greatness is a very pertinent question so I am interested in how you should define this, as for the ability to transcend time, are you asserting that only great poems can transcend time (whatever that means?) what is to stop ‘poor’ poetry (perhaps akin to the poems of Aleister Crowley) from transcending time?

    ‘They have the ability to evoke universal feelings which we can all identify with regardless of the epoch in which we read them in’

    (A tautological statement surely) so all poems which express a recognisable emotion are great, and does this therefore include Crowley’s works which express emotions? What about the culture in which they are read in?

    ‘The repetition of the phrase…’

    Are all poems which use repetition, or any other particular literary device, therefore great?

    ‘we can all understand, and more importantly feel the pathos…’
    Avery subjective and inaccurate interpretation I would suggest.

    ‘And so this poem is as “relevant” now as it was when it was written almost 100 years ago.’
    Why, because it expresses an identifiable emotion?

    ‘Of course we cannot use one poem as the exemplar of the entire poetic tradition.’
    I agree with you here, but not your next line:

    ‘But we can clearly see from this example that poetry has the power to be relevant on its own terms.’

    What have you made clear, that repetition has power that emotions are still relevant?

    ‘the relevance of poetry is found in its subjectivity and its ability to connect with individuals who each find their own meaning in the text. As Oscar Wilde rightly noted, “It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors”.’

    Yes, I can agree with this, however is your use of ‘universal’ and ‘greatness’ not further examples of applying an ‘arbitrary objective standard?

    ‘Poetry should not chase relevance within these narrow parameters.’

    Poets can chase ‘relevance’, poetry can not and I fail to see what substantive argument you have made to say what poetry should or should not do and why.

    ‘We should enjoy the tenderness of poems such as…’

    Why, because you urge us to? I do not see how you have made a case for poetry or any other art form at all in this article.

    ‘brought to life through the beautiful use of language.’

    Now this is thin, ‘brought to life’? Please, define the values of beauty upon which you are asserting this, you may find more arbitrariness though.

    ‘poetry has the power to touch us all’
    But you would need to say how to back this up surely?


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