The Promise of Words

Laura (Riding) Jackson

There are at least two words ‘poetry’, one meaning linguistic activity of a certain kind, the other meaning verbal matter produced by such activity. I speak in this little essay of what it is that poets are doing and what their activity amounts to in the scales of human behaviour, rather than of poetry the verbal matter – although I may be drawn into making incidental references to it. Another way of describing my point of view, here, is to say that I am trying, here, to function in the field of human criticism rather than in that of literary criticism. (In my fundamental attitude to poetry as a poet, my conception of poetry was not a categorically literary one.)

During my career as a poet I became increasingly an advocate of poetry. In the final stages of that career I claimed, I think, more than any one has ever claimed for it. I believed that it was the way of truth, and to truth, the ‘of’ and the ‘to’ being mingled in my mind in a fond hope that somewhere along the way approach would turn into arrival. Lest my use of ‘truth’ in the preceding sentence throw a religiose mist over my meaning, let me recast my phrasing: I believed that it was the way of speaking true and the way to speaking true, both path of the ideal in language and place of its realisation. This double focus was the result of my not having a categorically literary conception of poetry.

I came eventually to believe there to be something ineradicably wrong with the activity poetry – and that this was reflected in poetry the matter. I arrived at this belief not from disapproval of the cultivation of extraordinary linguistic powers to which poets are professionally dedicated – not with any priggish bias towards the plain-ordinary verbal level – but in the persuasion that poetry involves a distortion of a natural human ambition of linguistic self-fulfilment, and that poets delude themselves in feeling that they attain a verbal serene above the murk of commonplace articulateness, and that they obstruct the general vision of human linguistic potentialities with the appearance of doing so. In the ordinary way of speaking, and the ordinary way of writing, called ‘prose’, which is modelled on it, there are obvious murkinesses; the ‘good’ speaker or prose-writer is one who is able to keep their number low. In the poetic way of writing, which is at once a non-ordinary way of speaking, there is no escape from murkinesses, but they are concealable there; the ‘good’ poet is one who keeps them so inconspicuous that they make no overt problem for his or her or anybody else’s intelligence. Much of the magical effect that poetry gives of rendering everything it touches pellucid comes from the necessity of compression that it imposes. The impossibility of pausing in poetry as long as may be needed to make sense clear causes many a set of words actually deficient in linguistic workmanship to pass for an eloquent brevity.

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