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The Importance of Poetry and Great Literature
written by: Dr. Gideon Sampson Cecil
Poetry has always been a part of human life. It is an art that lies in the soul and spirit of man since the beginning of time. A poet writes always of his personal life and experience. He writes because he has an indispensable desire in his heart to express his ideas to objectify his poetic philosophy about life.
The English poet Shelly said that: ‘‘A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth…’’. The profound truth in this line written by Shelly can be seen in the poetry of all the classical poets, from Homer to Shakespeare. The writing of great poetry has been the primary vehicle for expressing one’s thoughts, observations, historical events, and various philosophies from a different perspective on life. A great poem, unlike a novel or a short story, can be digested and absorbed in our souls and can become a part of us forever. The poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tagore, and Shakespeare has become a part of the literary world until today. The divinity of their poetry has become sermons and prayers over the ages.
Poets speak a language all their own. Poets think in images—words naming a sensory thing or action. Great poetry requires a reader to experience a series of sensory experiences. Having experienced the image, we need to interpret it. The vital message and metaphor are what the poet wants you to know. Poetry gives pleasure first, then truth, hidden in complex imagery and philosophy. Its language is charged, intensified and sophisticated. The imagery in poetic writing is what every poet should strive for to achieve in his literary craft. Imagery is not just the sensory object the poem will convey to the readers. It is not only the beautiful and musical patterning of words; it is truth and meaning within the words of the poet that gives us great poetry.
The illustrious American poet and critic T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘‘The dead poets are revealing themselves in the poets that are alive…’’ His knowledge in the line I have quoted here is what I have experienced as a poet. I am inspired and motivated to write when I read the work of a great poet. Inspiration will only come to us by reading and meditation. Poetry, I believe, is a very deep spiritual revelation compounded with creative imagination from the unseen world into the known material world.
Some philosophers and theologians believe that poetry writing is ‘intuitive writing’ that cannot be taught from mere book learning. I fully agree with them because one can be taught the literary genres and techniques about writing from an English textbook, but one cannot be taught how to write. Great poetry should be revealed to the poet by spiritual revelation for him. It is my firm conviction that poetry, as well as music and art, are a God-given gift given to the artist unknown to him on many occasions that cannot be taught at Universities. Some of our greatest Guyanese authors and poets such as Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, Philip Moore and Petamber Persaud never acquired university degrees but their writings excelled those with PhD. degrees. Samuel Johnson was too poor to acquire a University degree, yet he wrote the greatest dictionary and tons of books and papers. What many academics failed to understand is very simple: degrees don’t write; writers do the writing.
Intuition which we sometimes call ‘inspiration’ will push us to write lines we ourselves are unable to write by our natural intellectual apprehension. Until today, many literary scholars believe that Shakespeare never wrote what he had written because he was not educated at a University. Shakespeare was naturally gifted and inspired by God to write what he had written. The American poet and critic, T.S. Eliot, believed that Shakespeare never did any real thinking to write but wrote upon inspired thoughts given to him by the imperial muse of poetry.
Poetry is an art, and in my opinion, the greatest of the fine arts and the hardest in which to reach true perfection. The true poet must be genuine, who has faith and confidence that his work will do something to the world and the society he lives in. Poetry deals with the emotional intensity in mankind. It’s a more sophisticated art in writing that comes from the poet’s heart by a higher sort of creative imagination. Prose, on the other hand, deals with the external intellect. It’s a more lucid and scientific form of expression. It is a more analytical and comprehensive style in formal writing. It enables man to see things more clearly, whereas poetry lies in obscure images beneath the surface of things that can only be comprehended by eyes within our mind’s eye. Poetry is philosophy locked in symbolism and magnificent imagery. In closing, poets are important in every society because their prophetic words of wisdom will live on after they are gone.