What is poetry FOR?

That was the question I couldn’t answer.

There are answers, of course. I waited for one of them to come to me but it didn’t. Instead, a memory arrived, an unsuitable memory.

This was at the launch of Vishvāntarā’s pamphlet Cursive, and Fiona Moore’s Night Letter at the London Buddhist Centre last weekend. Before the two poets read, there was a short discussion/ interview with all three of us. The ‘What is it FOR?’ question was put by poet and host Maitreyabandhu who had the whole session filmed. So you can see what we said, if you want to, though you can’t see what I was thinking.

Which was this. About 25 years ago, I was teaching in college and officiating in what we called a FLU (a flexible learning unit). In the FLU people could do many things with the support of a tutor (me) – from basic English to (you guessed it) creative writing. We had study packs which people opened, read, and then got on with. In between I talked to them, and they talked to each other. We went off and had long coffee breaks together. This was before SMART targets and it was very civilised.

One week a small woman with very long hair turned up. Very long, right down to her bum. She wrote poetry, she said, and could show me some of it because she took it with her wherever she went. Poetry was an unusual arrival. I was curious. So were the other students in the room.

Do you recall that sort of toilet paper called Izal? It was hard and slightly shiny. Using it as it was intended was not a pleasant experience but it was cheap, cheaper than the soft kind, and definitely better than no toilet paper.b2ap3_thumbnail_izaltoiletpaper.jpg

Well, what the poet produced what looked like a roll of Izal toilet paper. Izal was never easy to write on. From this distance in time I can’t be sure it was Izal. But what she had with her appeared to me, and to the other people in the room, to be a roll of toilet paper, each sheet of which was covered in tiny writing. She proceeded to unroll it in long loops. Her poems, her tiny poems, went for miles.

I read some of the poems before she rolled them up again. They did not appear to be great literature, at least not on the first twenty or thirty sheets, but she put them back into her bag them with pride. She was intense and serious and sweet, so no jokes were made then, or at any other time, about poems on toilet rolls and their potential uses. However, those thoughts were in my head and in the heads of all the other people in the room.

And this was the image that popped into my head when Maitreyabandhu asked ‘What is poetry for?’. It was closely followed by another memory, the recollection of a thin booklet written by the late Evangeline Paterson titled What to do with your poems? , which always struck me as an unfortunate title. Somehow the two have bonded in my head.

What is poetry for? It has numerous functions. But what’s it for?

I still don’t know ‘the’ answer.

However, I know what I use some of it for. (No, not that.)

And in particular, since I want to write a little about Night Letter and Cursive, I’m going to say what they do for me. Is that the same as what I use them for, or what you might use them for? Possibly.

Vishvāntarā (in the same filmed discussion) spoke of poetry as a kind of portal, a way between worlds like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and she has something here, yes, because I know I use the poems of these two poets to take me out of myself. It’s one of their functions, and a vital one.

It’s like the line from Tom Duddy’s poem ‘Racing Festival’ in The Hiding Place: ‘I am elated, light-hearted, beside myself.’ Reading these poems takes me into the same mental space as writing, those rare moments in which words are magical and transformative, and existence is pregnant with meaning, and the burden of my own ‘self’ evaporates.

I can like poetry that doesn’t do this – doesn’t take me out of myself but only into itself. But the work I value most takes me out. Fiona Moore (same discussion) said something about how in reading and in writing poetry we are at our most alive. Not all poetry gives me that feeling of walking on the edge, the precise and beautiful edge between life and death where readiness is all – but this poetry does.

The two pamphlets are not ‘like’ each other. But they share this quality of purity, discipline, dedication. If I want to stop the world and be still, I can read these. I can use them ‘for’ that. They take me out of myself.

I don’t want to make poetry pamphlets sound like mystical texts. They have laughter in them too, and puzzles. You can worry away at them: what’s going on here? what does that really mean? did she really say that? But here are two poets you can respect and learn from. I have learned and been enriched, and will go back again and again. The lines, the forms, the shapes – these are hard-won, thoughtful, joyous, distilled, life-enhancing.