THE SUBTLE BEAUTY OF POETRY
“The key word in my play is ‘perhaps’.”
In a sense, it would be unfair for me to explain to you what a story or poem means. It might mean so much to me. Maybe it does for you too, but it could be that you and I aren’t reading the same story or poem. Because I’m only equating it with my own experiences, my own emotions, perhaps even a little of my culture from where I live.
First comes the context, then our own interpretation. When I think I understand, it’s still just my own understanding. I could read hundreds of pages of interpretation from critics, but I doubt it’s what the writer truly and personally meant and intended it to be.
But that’s the beauty of poetry. That’s why it is able to reach many different people, one heart at a time.
The idea of a poet is someone who sees and feels something that we don’t. Through the poet’s seeing and feeling, we gain realization and understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
The best poets always leave the interpretation to others. To paraphrase Socrates, the poet sounds foolish when he attempts to explain what his poetry meant. To that we may add, the poetry’s beauty might be diminished if he does so.
Songs can be counted as poetry as well — I mean the good ones. — Lyrical poetry’s a better word.
There’s a joke that says if you play an old song backwards, you get your dog back, you get your wife back, you get your life back. They used to sing good stuff back then. There (still) are amazing songwriters like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, whose songs leave us really profound things to think about.
Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (the first songwriter to have achieved so) was once asked what his advice to young songwriters was. He simply responded, “Stop writing”. I thought that was just a bland statement from Dylan, until I heard Anaconda play on the radio. He wasn’t kidding.
SO, WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
“In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”
Poetry’s everywhere — At the heart of almost every civilization. We have poetry in China, in Egypt, in Ancient Greece, in Arabia, in the Malay Archipelago, everywhere. It’s so essential to the human experience because it’s universal. Aristotle was right when he told us that poetry is greater than history — Because history dealt with the particular. Poetry deals with the universal.
We know there were great wars going on. History books tell us of the glory that went to the winning side. But seldom do we hear about the marriages that were destroyed, limbless soldiers returning home depressed,disenchanted and jobless, waking up in the middle of the night screaming, horrified by their past. History never writes about these things. That’s why we need the poet to tell us.
Another reason why great literature is desperately needed today is because we’ve been victims of melodrama for too long. Melodrama, basically, is the kind of literature that emphasizes plot and action over character development. It’s the kind of thing like in the old cowboy movies where the bad guy wears a black hat and the good guy wears a white hat.
It’s what we always do, isn’t that true? We’re the good guys. They’re the bad guys. When you think about it, it’s a little funny because the other side thinks the exact same thing about us and themselves.
We’re usually not allowed into the mind of the bad guy. He’s simply a nonentity. Unlike us, he isn’t “human”.
That’s the powerful tool of people with agendas. That’s what they do to create disorder and division. With brilliant rhetoric and convincing stories, they create a melodramatic universe in which that division makes sense. They have the power to move a nation and to tear another apart. Hearts beat together towards the same ideas and aims. Hitler, not surprisingly, was one of those people who wielded that tool extremely well.
Let’s take a trip down to memory lane.
When Muslims were expelled from Spain, the Spaniards called that event the Reconquista — The Reconquering of Spain. Muslims, on the other hand, called it the Invasion of the North.
In America there was the Civil War — The country was divided into two, the Union (Northern States) and the Confederate States (Southern). The Southern States called it the Northern War of Aggression. The Northern States called it the Civil War.
Each side thinks of themselves as noble and fighting for a just or sacred cause, and the other as evil. As Bob Dylan sang, both of them “had God on their side”. This is why there’s so much hatred in the world. Everyone’s scared of each other. No one wants to understand.
Even when it comes to reading the Qur’an, it’s easier to read it in a melodramatic light. If you read the Qur’an without proper knowledge, it’s possible for you to be lead astray (May Allah protect us from that). It’s an undeniable truth. The Qur’an warns us that from belief can come disbelief (4:137) and it warns us against demonizing our enemies (41:33-34).
I find it very interesting that back in the day, the mufassirun or the interpreters of the Qur’an had to study pre-Islamic poetry as a prerequisite.
In this sense, poetry allows us to step back from the little, limited world of our own thinking and to see what’s really going on.
THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST
“What great poets do is they give us characters, they don’t give us caricatures. They tell us who these people are because they have stories. And in knowing those stories it helps to understand, not justify! But understand at a deeper level why things are the way they are.”
Syeikh Hamza Yusuf
The poet Ezra Pound once said that “Artists are the antennae of the race”. What he meant is that it is the role of an artist is to tell us where we are, and where we’re going as a society, or as a human race.
Deep in the bones and mind of an artist is the ultimate responsibility to instill understanding, to build bridges that connect hearts and minds, no matter the background or culture.
Often times he has to leave himself, his personal feelings and reputation out of the equation. This, of course, isn’t an easy thing to do.
In a letter to a friend, John Steinbeck expressed how he was very nearly done with writing a story, until he threw the whole thing away. “My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other,” he said, “And then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding.”
An artist doesn’t sugarcoat. He tells the truth even if he has to hurt his audience, or himself, especially.
In his writings, Shakespeare does something painful : He holds up a mirror and tells us, “Look at yourselves. Do you find yourselves in my play? Which role are you playing?” He won’t allow you to deceive yourself.
Shakespeare never judged his characters. He never lets you know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are. At times he wrote about the enemies of his own nation, but he described their leader as noble. He didn’t fall into melodrama. He wouldn’t put a black hat on his enemy. He recognized that his enemy too is noble, that he too is fighting for his homeland, fighting for what is meaningful for him.
His characters are very modern in a sense. You can imagine them being from our generation, as CEOs of major corporations, world leaders in suits and ties. Their hearts struggle with what is assailing our society even more today — Egocentricity, the mindset that the world exists only for you — And nihilism, the belief that nothing has meaning. Virtues, ethics, dignity are just words that old people made up to scare their kids, just like how they’d tell them a boogeyman will accompany them at night if they don’t go to sleep.
Read more poetry because it is your ticket out from ignorance. Read more poetry because love and understanding is always the answer. Read more poetry because it helps make you human.
I’m not exactly saying that poetry alone can save the world; but that poetry is one reason why the world is worth saving.
If you have the time, or rather, if you’re willing to make time, try reading this war poem below as your little homework. It’s one of the first ones I actually read. It’s really good for a start. Get to know its context first (there are many sources online, including Wikipedia), and then start taking up a few lines at a time. Think of what they might mean. That’s one way to enjoy a poem.
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
The Man He Killed