People write from their ego and produce not-poetry; people write to heal themselves and this is good and meaningful; and thirdly, and more famously, people write poetry because they write poetry and produce art. And a number key factors come together when this happens.
First, the third desire – for beauty – comes into play (in every sense of the word). The writing is an aesthetic, an art, and a certain skill and knowledge comes into its construction which seeks to render meaning as it truly is: namely, beautiful. It is not a ‘gloss’ on meaning – that would be versification – but it reveals the essential nature of meaning and is often a kind of discovery. We read the poem and we see something, we hear something, we feel something that had not existed before – and this can surprise the poet his or herself. Meaning and truth are not abstractions anymore but are given form, symbolic, metaphoric and mimetic too, and this is beauty.
Beauty, as Thomas Aquinas observed, arrests motion: we encounter, we are bewitched by its magic, and in truly great poetry the beauty goes to an even higher level and reaches sublimity, by which we are astonished and stare in awe, amazed at this suspension of all critical or other faculty that would bid us stir. And if this seems incredible we need only reflect on the origins of the love of words – nursery rhymes, songs, and riddles when we were very young. How often did we demand our parent, ‘Tell me again, mum!’ We were, literally, spellbound.
And this leads on to the second point. Technique, thoroughly absorbed and engrained, is necessary to write poetry that is art, but it is not sufficient to produce it. For all the great and the less great - though still real - poets know: there is a Muse, and this Muse is not under our conscious control, although she can be invoked, and all of us may have rituals which enable her presence. For without her presence, the work may be clever, entertaining, right-on, politically correct, and many other ‘good’ things, but it won’t be the real thing, the real poem.
Thus, it should be obvious that reliance on the Muse is the exact opposite of writing from the ego, for in one important sense the poet abandons conscious control of the poem to this higher force. Later, perhaps, the output benefits from editing, but that is later – real poetry is, literally, inspired – comes from the deep breath, the inspiration, of the universe itself. Whosoever writes such poetry puts themselves in the way – the Tao – of the nature of things, and of course their poems live irrespective of fame or public opinion. Invoking the Muse does not depend on university degrees or professorships, as Shakespeare and Keats all too ably demonstrate.
And there is another important consequence of this: namely, that the Muse always creates beauty by showing the structure of meaning – making it visible, as it were. This is odd in the modern and post-modern world which majors on ugliness, formlessness and despair – and thinks in some morally superior manner that this is ‘reality’, this is how it is, that they are not deluded by effeminate notions such as ‘beauty’.
But of course they totally mistake what ‘beauty’ is in this context. To give one example of what I mean. There are few things worse in human history than the misery, degradation and suffering that the soldiers went through in World War One – the Western Front as it was called. For a prolonged period of time it was an arena that was so terrible that we can scarcely imagine its full horrors. So when Wilfred Owen writes poetry about it, he is not disguising or soft-soaping the nightmare; on the contrary, he confronts it head on. But, through the words and techniques he uses, something of primal beauty is created that simultaneously re-creates that horror in a way nothing else can or does and makes us feel it in a new way. It is quite extraordinary; in his poem Strange Meeting I would argue that he achieves sublimity – he is there with Homer, with Shakespeare, in creating a vision so intense that we are transported from ourselves to perceive conflict with a renewed heart inside us.
This final point – ‘renewed heart’ – also bears a brief comment. Poetry, at root, affects our feelings or it is hardly worth the name. The twentieth century has given rise to the dominance of an image-based poetry which is more head than heart-based, and in that sense is often (but not always) ineffective. Poetry begins with sound, not image, and the reason for this begins in the womb: our first sense is hearing – our mother’s heart beat. It is in the beat – the line – the rhythm and metric that the full capability to move us resides in the English language. English is in fact naturally iambic in constitution, and that is why something like 90% of great poetry is written in that form; and the form properly used enables infinite varieties of meaning and beauty. For an object lesson in this one has only to read Yeats, who was a modernist, but also a master of the iambic line, which he probably used to greater effect than any other poet in the last two hundred years.
The third primary reason, then, to write poetry is to create art: which is as much as to say, which is to create beauty, by using words to draw the inherent meaning in anything and everything, but especially in being a human being and all the richness that that means. We are not all going to be great poets, and it’s not a competition anyway; we are all dependent on the Muse and we need to wait in the silence till that voice speaks and that flow begins. If we can let the ego go, then we can write to heal ourselves and may be in time write some words that really do speak beauty. In that way we help and encourage others.