Through a Glass Clearly:The Purpose of Poetry by Vince Corvaia
Veterans of po biz, as Anne Sexton called it, might understand what I'm going to say about poetry's purpose in the world. But this is for everyone else, readers for whom a particular poem, maybe nothing more than a line or even a phrase, speaks to them in a language they never suspected anyone else understood, and now they know only that they have to find a way to respond.
When I started out, my poems were mirrors, reflecting both a discovery of who I was and the influence of others more experienced than myself. So my juvenilia reflected the confusion of identity and the pain of unrequited relationships as processed through Rod McKuen. I had no way of knowing good poetry from bad, only that (1) I related to what he was saying and (2) I thought maybe I could write as well as he did.
Gradually, through reading, experience, and perseverance, I forged a style of my own. In my case, I was reading Ariel in my twenties and struggling to express similar feelings in my own language. Over time, Plath became a cocoon from which I freed myself with a voice I recognized as uniquely my own. I also became aware of other people and how their lives were at least if not more interesting than my own. But I still perceived them in terms of their relationship to me and the world in which I lived. My mirrors in other words had become stained glass – I could see beyond the room in which I wrote even while my view was still colored by my fixed perceptions.
Finally, I let go of those perceptions and allowed those external concerns (people, issues, abstractions) to take center stage. Of course I didn't obliterate myself entirely – I was still writing from my own consciousness – but now I was writing from other points of view, such as my parents'. I had gained empathy – I was seeing through a window for the first time.
Poets can work at either end of this spectrum – in modern terms, the aforementioned Anne Sexton brought a universality and understanding to her poems even while exploring issues of introspection and madness; Carolyn Forche casts an impassioned activist's eye on important social issues; and with “Kaddish” and “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg managed to do both. “Heart's Needle,” by W.D. Snodgrass, is as fine a fusion of both internal and external sensibilities as I've read, and young poets might do well to refer to it occasionally as to a compass, which keeps travelers from straying off-course.
So this, for me, is the purpose of poetry – the ability to identify and empathize with the world in which we live. My own success varies from poem to poem – sometimes I lapse into adolescent navel-gazing before the same tarnished mirror – but the key is to never stop striving, to constantly reach beyond that open window, into the regions William Faulkner called the “verities of the human heart.”