What is Poetry for?

As a sometime poet who has written and published hundreds of poems, I believe I am qualified to ask such a question. Indeed, I will go further and answer it: too many of my poems are – given certain criteria – largely irrelevant, inconsequential, and change nothing. As yours may be – if you write poetry, that is. And it seems these days who doesn’t? The internet is awash with websites and Instagram accounts filled with snippets of ‘poetry’, much of which is pretty awful.

“Hang on,” I hear you complain, “this is hardly an auspicious beginning.”

The source of your objections might manifest themselves in pointing out that it’s a wonderful thing that so many people are turning their hands to poetry, no matter the quality, context etc. 

And it is

You might argue that self-expression is not only a vital attribute of being human, but for some people is essential in permitting them to survive and function. 

And it is

You might also assert that there is much poetry which is truly beautiful, uplifting, sublime. 

And again you would be correct.

However, if your inclination is to support both sides of this particular argument – as I confess mine is – then how can we possibly reconcile such polar opposites? I believe the answer lies in addressing the question ‘what is poetry for?’, one which goes hand-in-hand with ‘why do I write?’ because they are interrelated and their answers intensely personal.

All too often we fall into writing because a) it passes the time, b) we’re good at it, c) it was our best subject at school, d) etc. etc. Too infrequently – if ever – do we really question why we write. I mean seriously, forensically, and honestly.

I am pretty sure my own answer – arrived at after considerable thought and soul-searching – will chime with many. 

  1. I write because I can’t help myself; it is a compulsion, an addiction. 
  2. I write because I get a great deal of satisfaction from doing so.
  3. I write in order to make sense of the world and my experiences within it.
  4. I write in the hope that others may gain pleasure or insight from what I produce.

How many of you are looking at that list and thinking tick-tick-tick-tick?

Yet how do we resolve such ‘reasons’ against any notion of ‘worth’ – or worthlessness and pointlessness?

Well let’s take #1 off the table on the basis that we can’t do anything about it. You may want to psychoanalyse the reasons behind your addiction – or protest that we could, if we wanted to, force ourselves to stop – but this moves the argument into a whole different channel and discipline.

Of the remaining three, the second and third are entirely personal; only the last one has anything to do with others in the world around us. It is in this realm – in the interaction between what we write and our readers – where the conventional sense of ‘worth’ arises. And having said that, we surely shouldn’t be so deluded as to assign lofty ideas to what we write, admit to notions of ‘changing the world’ – not at least if we are, in the poetic sense, mere mortals. When Covid broke it seemed everyone wanted to write ‘the definitive Covid poem’ – and, of course, none of these were. How could they be? The war in Ukraine is a subject which has engendered a similar outpouring. Are these attempts to make others ‘see’, to change opinion? If so, in the vast majority of cases you will be preaching to the converted. Or do we write such thing to make ourselves somehow ‘feel better’?

In considering the whole, let’s take Van Gogh. Would it not be reasonable to assume that he painted because he couldn’t help himself (#1), and in order to try and make sense of the world around him (#3) – though it is questionable how much personal satisfaction he gained from the process given how his story ended (#2). But even if his work ended up failing him – subjective appreciation aside – who would argue that his paintings are worthless? That the world would be a better place without them? For us, their ‘readers’, all the value comes from that fourth reason: the pleasure, insight, and emotional reaction we gain from simply standing in front of his paintings and looking (#4).

In terms of poetry – and specifically our poetry – the vast majority is probably never read by many dispassionate and unbiased people, never mind have sufficient quality, insight, technique, emotion, guile (you choose the words!) to be responded to in the same way – and to the same ‘depth’ – as we might react to a Van Gogh. A “that’s nice” comment from a local writing group hardly qualifies! Against such a ‘Van Gogh scale’, I would argue it is only a very minuscule percentage of all the poems ever written (no, of everything ever written: poetry, prose, plays, non-fiction) which is truly appreciated as a Van Gogh painting might be, and therefore of any real ‘social worth’. The litmus test is to imagine a poem having never been written; would its absence have made a difference to the world? The Iliad or The Odyssey, certainly. The Canterbury Tales, The Sonnets, Paradise Lost – you get the picture. And make no mistake, thankfully it will be a very long, glorious and contemporary list (though ‘contemporaneity’ comes with some caveats) – yet even so, it will still be just a minor percentage of the whole canon of poetry ever written calculated to very many decimal places.

Yet is this too stringent a measure? I doubt it. How many of us have written something which has made a lasting and meaningful mark on the world?! If it hasn’t? Well then, metaphorically throw it away… 

Hang on! What about if a poem of ours has made a difference to just one person – a real meaningful, tangible difference? What if they were truly moved or inspired by what we had written? Surely that qualifies that piece ‘in’. And what if one of our poems made a real difference to us, allowed us to process something difficult, to see things in a new and more constructive way, helped us deal with grief or loss? Surely these would pieces would also pass muster? 

If that one is debatable, I suggest it is only because we may be inclined to dish out credit to our own ‘children’ far too readily, vested interest and all that. Thus, if we are honest with ourselves – truly honest – what proportion of our own work either inspires others or soothes ourselves? Honestly? Ten percent? Five? Less than one?

You might complain that this harsh metric ignores any transient benefit we might have garnered in the production process, the writing of the piece as in #2 above. And it does. Although different, I would argue such temporary highs simply represent the other side of the addiction coin; they go hand-in-hand. Should there be brownie points for feeding an addiction? And in any case, the addiction feeds itself. If you adopt the position that no writing is wasted – whether you produce a masterpiece or a dud – each time we put pen to paper we are learning something about the process, ourselves, our work. All of which feed into our next ‘fix’.

So, if you are brutal enough to accept that most poetry is pointless – irrespective of who wrote it, and in the sense that it has failed to meaningfully touch anyone, or perhaps even been read by anyone, or ever made any tangible difference to our lives or our interpretation of the world – could you not erase the vast majority of it from the annals of history and no-one would be any the wiser or poorer, depending on your slant? An example? A few years ago I wrote a poem called “St. Ives”. I really like it, vividly remember how it came to me, and am fond of it. I even published it. Yet how many people have read or heard it? Almost certainly very few. Has it made a difference to or lasting impression on anyone other than myself? I very much doubt it. Against my ‘Van Gogh scale’ it would not score well, its ripples so minuscule that from the external perspective of ‘worth’ (#4) it might just as well have not been written.


My poetry helps me make sense of the world, first and foremost (#3). Along with everything else I write, it is a critical component in my journey through life – so it scores incredibly highly there. Yet having said that, by answering the question of why I write and being honest about my relationship to my output – and the world’s relationship to my output (#4) – I can also reconcile myself to an understanding of the ‘worth’ (or worthlessness) of the majority of it and be comfortable with that.

I believe that only by being honest with ourselves about the nature of our work can we tease at the questions as to why we do what we do, and what poetry is ‘for’. In doing so, hopefully we can arrive at a mature understanding of our work and be comfortable with where it sits in the pantheon of literature; and knowing that, we can be comfortable with being published or not, being invited to read at events or not. With such enlightenment, such a burden off our backs, I would argue we can harvest even more appreciation of what our poetry does for us. More than that, surely in arriving at a better understanding of the nature and ‘worth’ of our own work, we can recognise the role such endeavours play in others’ creative lives even if what they produce has no impact on our own.

Poetry is pointless? Who says so…?

Footnote: The original draft of this article was much harsher and unforgiving when it came to the general ‘worth’ of poetry. However, thanks to a splendid hour spent virtually with a number of other poets who were reading their own work I was forced to modify my tone. I had in turn been moved, awe-struck, jealous of some of the poems read during that hour. Perhaps the majority of those I may not remember for very long, or may not stand the test of time (and is that a major element in deciding ‘worth’?), but for a short while at least they did move and inspire me. If that is sufficient to invest worthiness on them, then I can only hope that a greater percentage of my own efforts do likewise – certainly more than I am currently giving myself credit for!

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