What does Poetry DO?

Malcolm Guite: “I once had a conversation with the poet Seamus Heaney on when poetry lives and works in people, as opposed to being printed on a page or worse still, studied in a university somewhere –  when does it actually become poetry?  We both agreed that it first becomes poetry when it shimmers into the air and is spoken out loud.

But he then added something – he said: Most people don’t necessarily remember a whole poem – and you never ‘get’ a whole poem on the first reading anyway – but he said what happens, he thinks, is that certain phrases from a poem – the ones that you need – enter deeply into you.  And he says that the poem really becomes a poem not when you’re reading it or thinking about it as a poem, but when you’re out in the middle of life – you’re doing something, seeing somebody – you’re looking at a horizon or a landscape or getting onto a bus and suddenly a line from a poem that you read – perhaps a long time ago – comes into your mind – a phrase and absolutely clarifies things for you.  You remember who you are and what you’re about.

Heaney’s phrase was “Poetry offers phrases that feed the soul.”

(This anecdote is at 35 minutes 50 seconds into the recording.)


What a wonderful example of art having a conversation with life – which is the subject of this entire bloggery.  If you type in the word “poetry” or “writing”, I think you’ll find quite a few examples across this blog.

Interestingly, this talk is called “Waiting on the Word” which is Malcolm Guite’s anthology of poetry for the season of Advent, waiting on “the Word” – which is one of the Bible’s descriptions of Jesus, in the poetic book of John.  Malcolm Guite is acting as interpreter: he collected the poems from a variety of poets to be printed on the page, he is now reading them out so they cross the air to the ear, he is speaking about the meaning and other titles of Christ, he has translated some poems from Latin and woven that meaning in new poems by himself – and telling an anecdote about one of the great poets of the twentieth century, speaking about poetry.


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