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On Poetry and its Purpose

An essay

By Mesh ToraskarPublished 5 months ago Updated 4 months ago 7 min read
Top Story - December 2023
15
On Poetry and its Purpose
Photo by Akil Ochoa on Unsplash

Part 3 in my 'writing' series.

Find Part 1, here and Part 2, here.

In our popular culture of carefully curated spectacles that we consume from the side-lines, poems are not spectacles, neither can they be observed passively. Carefully curated, yes. Spectacles, no. A conversation could never be a spectacle. Poems demand an exchange of electrical currents through the daily, mundane, abused, and ill prized medium that is language. The force that is used for deception, as often as it used for revelation. Through the tactile material things - the baseball bat in your dad’s trunk, the oar floating away from a boat, the unused spoon in your kitchen drawer, or the space where once your grandfather’s favourite willow tree stood forty feet tall. The bat becomes a lost passion, the oar/your dreams, the spoon/an opportunity and the tree/now a drum soundtracking the memories you never had. The language that is an old vehicle, fuelled with familiarity, arriving at destinations further than it has travelled, always having more to mean than it has to say.

It is a test [that] genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

~T.S Eliot

What poetry is made of is not just words, but also time. Something that is so old that it is easy to forget about the silence it successfully overcame, the quiet battles it conquered in the poet’s mind. And that the poem arrived, in time, on time. Lit by us, the readers - stained in our shadows. Travelled from the nervous system of the poet, unfinished, to the nervous system of the reader, the one who listens, the active participant. Poems are the literal definition of ‘sparks flying’.

*

Let me confess, I have written poems to manipulate. Formed from selfish, dishonest motives, they always, like an ill-made sweater fell apart at the seams in my own hands, ultimately flailing in their shoddy warmth. I cannot write a poem to manipulate. Neither can I write a poem simply from good intentions and argue to change the world. The energy will leak out of it, and it will end falling short of its intended meaning. I am also told, I can’t write a poem that transcends my own limits. To that I can argue that I have written poems that often pushed me beyond my horizons, into newer pastures, where I wandered freely, just off the freeway, without the guardrails pacing me forward. In those poems, I found parts of my own being, walking beyond the rest.

I find it amusing is that someone (me) writing a poem already believes in an entity, in a reader. In a way, that’s entering the conversation with limited syllables. Like sitting down at a card table where all the cards are already face up. Self-reference becomes inevitable, the reader is just my extension, my clone. I am just sending letters to myself, limiting their reach to my own house. Writing is a lonely art.

But over time, I have come to realise the ‘who’ of the envisioned reader is constantly flickering, that ‘I’ in my poems can morph into a universal ‘we’ without extinguishing the others, that a shared language exists. Readers with a vibrating range of difference, strangers that bring their own heartbeats, heartaches, memories, myths, and images exist. And the reach of my poem, therefore, is not limited to my own experiences anymore. That my poems can sometimes show a mirror to the world, a mirror that contains the world. In a language that itself has learned from heartbeats, heartaches, memories, myths, and images of strangers. Most if not all readers go into a poem with a slight apprehension at the back of their minds. But why do I care? Am I going to find anything for myself in this poem? And that is not a simple question to answer. We enter a poem, sometimes losing our way back. What if I enter something that breaks me and fails to put me back together? It is risky business.

I’ve started writing, believing my poems will speak to whomever chooses to listen, whomever needs it, and there’s a comfort in that. I try to avoid easy answers, the limited and stunted closures. No convenience is allowed, is accepted. Rather, at the root level, I write them to just remind you, the reader, that we are not alone – in our feelings. And maybe that means nothing to you. And maybe it means just enough. I expect the readers to find my limits, in units of their own landscape. Not to get manipulated but tell me how I arrived here. Selfish, but never dishonest.

*

A poem is being crafted. The words are laid down in a force field and it’s dynamic. It’s almost as if the words themselves possess magnetic properties. They either veer together or repel each other, in a symphony of alignment and opposition. The energy in the field is fuelled by the moving history of the words, how they come together to form someone’s language, how that someone’s unconditionally embraced, questioned, relied upon it in their life. The staging of the poem is a series of choices about its spatial and temporal dimensions—how the chosen words should rest on the page, their pauses, their speed, their phrases and how they will interact with the one who comes along to read them. Reader who will convert the written words into images and let them flood the brain. I ‘read’ Sarah Winman write “And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth”, but I ‘heard’ her heart break, and with hers, mine too. And I was finally free to say “I think I am hurt. I am also scared. I don’t know what happens next?”

The handling of my need to construct around destructiveness that I move through, some of my own making, through language is how I reclaim my own identity. I often feel my primary appetite for both, destruction and creation, but I choose to create. To create a space to hold my life, my hopes and dreams. I project physical aspects of myself into that space to better envision, contain, maintain and express them. Poetry, and to an extent all art, if willing, is a space for my most necessary communications. After all, the poem never needs to clear its throat. It transcends the need for introduction or explanations of its purpose or origin. It exists independently of its creator. Detached from the utilitarian use of language, it holds no capital, yet insists on being worthy. It reconnects me to myself, a self, kept safe from societal norms that often demand emotional conformity. “Why, as poets,” says Carl Phillips, “[should we] strip and, thereby make visible, difficulty instead of satisfying the majority of people by veiling it? Because poetry is not only what reminds us that we are human but helps ensure that we don’t forget what it means to be so.” Thus, a poem is far more than ink on the paper or the esoteric pursuits of the intellectual elite. It is, at its core, an invitation to engage in an essential conversation.

And yet, we live in an era where mainstream discourse often challenges the significance and relevance of art, especially poetry. Its need, its purpose. In a generation that is more comfortable to hide behind self-proclaimed, often filtered (corrected) identities online. In a generation, where the vulnerability of expressing fear or pain is getting as difficult as increasingly rare. Here, poetry arrives as a refuge, like a fire escape. As resilient as it is slender in its framework, it has become my most concentrated architecture of expression, of resistance. It is here, stood outside my apartment already in flames, that I find freedom to talk about my obsessions and fears on a structure just strong enough to hold the weight of my life. Watch the apartment go down in flames, rest assured that the fire escape will hold me up for as long as I desire.

*

Notes: After a hiatus, I'm thrilled to return with the third instalment in my 'writing' series. I'm aware there are numerous topics I've yet to explore, but rest assured, they will be addressed soon. While my definition of 'soon' may stretch to a couple of months, I deeply appreciate your continued patience and support. Speak soon. Stay tuned!

ProcessLife
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About the Creator

Mesh Toraskar

A wannabe storyteller from London. Sometimes words spill out of me and the only way to mop the spillage is to write them down.

"If you arrive here, remember, it wasn't you - it was me, in my longing, who found you."

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  • Suze Kay4 months ago

    So I read this last night and needed to let it settle in me over the last few hours, dreaming and waking. It's so full of food for thought. As always, you wind around and muse upon the fundamental "why" and "how" of our craft. Reading this feels like thinking - maddening in how it wanders, but each thread is connected to the footfall before it. In some ways, I feel like this in itself is a poem. My go-to line about what poetry is has always been: "When all the right words are in the right places." It's a garbage definition (and yours is better), but I still felt that while reading this story. All the right words in all the right places. One thing I may disagree with you on: "poems are not spectacles." And further, conversations, too. I think first of the discourse surrounding Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem. You could of course argue that the bans thereof in Florida, and the reading itself of the poem at the inauguration, were not the poem itself; and therefore the spectacle was made of the poem rather than the poem itself being a spectacle. But when I think of what you discuss later in this story, the act of creating her poem was the opening of a conversation with her readers. Those readers were receptive and critical alike. It is a poem that was always going to rub the fur both ways. It was written and performed at a time of peak controversy and division. The spectacle was the poem itself; because you cannot react to something you haven't read and at least considered the meaning of. The reaction it garnered was part of its purpose and meaning. I don't know if I can pull the poem apart from its spectacle. I don't think I can ever consider it not a spectacle. Similarly, conversations are spectacles all the time. Donald Trump saying "grab her by the pussy." Adam Levine's cringey sexting. Something my mother says at the dinner table that makes my jaw drop. I guess I think that at the end of the day, communication itself is a spectacle because it provokes reaction and connection, and poems are nothing if not communication, even if only to the self. Whew. Ok. Now, to think about your story for another million hours!

  • The Dani Writer4 months ago

    "Poems are the literal definition of ‘sparks flying.’". "What if I enter something that breaks me and fails to put me back together? It is risky business." "After all, the poem never needs to clear its throat." Masterfully expressed! It was difficult for me to read large blocks of text but I persevered. Best thing I've read in the past hour!

  • Denise E Lindquist4 months ago

    Congratulations on a well-deserved top story🎉🎉🎉

  • And what a risky business it is. Very well done. Congratulations on your top story

  • Mackenzie Davis4 months ago

    What a lovely surprise to see your profile pop up in my notifications! I read this as soon as you posted, and now I am here, two days later to comment 😳. This whole essay is gorgeous. Your opening paragraph is so deceptively simple, I had to slow down in the perfectly metered syntax to absorb everything. For instance: "The language that is an old vehicle, fueled with familiarity, arriving at destinations further than it has traveled, always having more to mean than it has to say." Like, wow, what a trip. And that TS Eliot quote is delicious, a perfect summation of what you’d just stated before. To imagine poetry in such an esoteric (?) way is beautiful and also SO rich with meaning. I completely agree, too. There is nothing easy about reading poetry. One has to really let it touch with ghostly weight for it to sidestep misunderstanding. Perhaps it’s easier to write poetry, because of the familiarity of the vehicle being inside the mind, rather than approaching it. "Sparks flying." That is a damn good way to put it. I can also see it as a freezing, when a good poem hits right, like one’s insides freeze with the incredulity of the words’ meaning, the genius of the poet, the impact of the entire package working masterfully that it demands a paralysis and a chill of awe. I like both. I think sparks flying is the first part of the freeze. What is poetry without there being two parts? A conversation, like you said. I wonder about that statement: You can’t write a poem that transcends your own limits. What are we defining as "limits?" The difference between what we think we can’t do and what we don’t know we can’t do… It’s like we have to go down the path to try it, and then see which one of us was right. I wonder if the poems you’ve written that pushed you beyond your horizons were really you testing what you thought you couldn’t do, only to find out that you simply didn’t know what you COULD do, and thus, wasn’t a true limit. Anyway. I could probably wax on about that more. Your section about poetry’s craft reminds me of Mary Oliver’s book. I’m reading that, need to finish, but it has that same breathless effect in me, as if I’m reading something I’ve been deprived of for years and years and am finally being filled with it. "[The words] either veer together or repel each other, in a symphony of alignment and opposition." And, sometimes, the opposition is just what needs to be there. The amazing realization a poet can have is to learn that there isn’t a sole goal for writing poetry, that of beauty. The trick is to learn how to do that with technical awareness, to marry the sound, shape, and meaning of the words (and their parts). "It is here, stood outside my apartment already in flames, that I find freedom to talk about my obsessions and fears on a structure just strong enough to hold the weight of my life. Watch the apartment go down in flames, rest assured that the fire escape will hold me up for as long as I desire." — Damn. Mic drop.

  • Teresa Renton5 months ago

    There is enough food there to last us a couple of months until you return Mesh. I was excited to see that you’d posted again and you don’t disappoint. I love your essay! Thought provoking and affirming like Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On Poetry’ (the second time I’ve mentioned this book today and I read it a while back, 🤔). I love ‘the poem never needs to clear its throat. It transcends the need for introduction or explanations of its purpose or origin’ as it affirms the independence of a poem and its detachment from the author, as soon as it has taken its first wobbbly steps into the world. ‘As resilient as it is slender in its framework, it has become my most concentrated architecture of expression, of resistance. —this resonates with me so much! I appreciated the section about the spatial and temporal dimensions, and choices, because so much is said through the unsaid, the pauses, the time element; something just happened? or is happening? Am I being ‘spoken to’ ‘ or ‘talked at’? Am I, as reader, even in the room? It all matters, makes a difference. I could sit and discuss these concepts for ages but I won’t babble on. Just wanted to say I appreciate this thorough and thoughtful essay! 🤗

  • Excellent article. You have expressed ever so eloquently things I have sometimes thought, more often simply sensed, about the poetry I read & how it affects me. You have done so in such a way as to render your explications poetic in & of themselves.

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