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Poetry as Top Soil

Good ground for good language.

In “From Imagination to Incarnation,” in Comment, Autgst 19th, 2021. Heidi Deddens interviewed Malcolm Guite about the nature and use of language, and especially of poetry. 

Poetry is powerful because it is musical in a way that engages us both in body and imagination. The iambic foot, as the most obvious example, imitates and so engages the beating of our heart. The rhythms of poetry catch our breathing, seeing, and hearing and draw us into the verse by all these means. “The more you pay attention to the metaphors you’re using, the more you realize that everything begins bodily. The magical thing is that it then becomes metaphorical. We see a tree, and we’re astonished at its roots and branches and the way it develops. But then, the very physicality of the tree as we’ve known it through our senses becomes a metaphor that allows us to speak about thought itself: that thought itself has branching patterns. To speak about traditions: that they have roots, but that the roots might need to be renewed. To look at whether something bears good fruit or bad fruit: you shall know them by their fruits, says Jesus.” For these and other reasons, Guite explains, poetry should be read out loud, and especially to other people.

All language is for communicating meaning. The language of poetry can give more texture and transcendence to language. It uses words to get at the Word beyond the subject of words. In a day when “there’s a coarsening and a poisoning of language” – particularly on the part of social media – poetry can help to restore the imaginative, soul-reaching, and edifying power of language.

Everyone has a duty to use language with care and concern: “Every person who uses language has a responsibility for how they use it, particularly for their mode of using it. If you’re a teacher, you need always to be working for the gifts of clarity and encouragement, and you have a special interest in both listening and making good analogies and comparisons in order to bring your students forward. So you have a care for language in that respect. If you are a policeman or a judge, you have a special care for the precision of language. You have to use exactly the right word and not another. There can be no vagueness or ambiguity. So for each avocation, each role within our society, which is a community of language, there are carers and keepers of that bit of language.” Poets have “a special charge to urge the mind to after sight and foresight, and to purify the dialect of the tribe.”

He concludes, “poets and imaginative writers are like the tiny little organisms that produce the rich topsoil in which everything else is growing. They’re gradually transforming the fallen detritus of experience into some rich that gives growth again.”


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