It is, I realise, my last column, so I'd best address the central question before it's too late. Namely, I mean, like, y'know, poetry - what's it for?
This was first posed to me during a workshop some years ago by a student at Haverstock School in Chalk Farm, but it articulated something that's bothered me for as long as I've been writing.
In fact, most poets I know spend considerable time pondering the purpose of what they do; partly, I suspect, because of the reflective nature of the practise and partly because a poet's lifestyle and work is subject to extraordinary judgement.
Tell someone you're a poet and their reaction will rarely be a brisk nod and an even "right you are then". More likely they will suddenly regard you in one of two ways - either with undeserved and inappropriate wonder or, more often, with equivalent and barely-concealed contempt. In the latter instance, their reaction seems to say: "A poet? What's the point of that?" And so you begin to ask yourself much the same thing. In fact, we've most likely all been pondering something similar lately, as the result of the Nation's Favourite Poet vote is announced this week, on National Poetry Day on 8 October.
Personally, I considered this again during a preview screening of Bright Star, Jane Campion's brilliant film about John Keats' ill-fated relationship with Fanny Brawne. Sure, Keats, himself on the Nation's Favourite Poet shortlist, wrote some of the most beguiling love poetry in the English language, but he also died uncelebrated and penurious at the age of 25. So what was the point of that?
Of course, no sooner had I asked myself this question than I recognised its implication - that I seemed to acknowledge celebrity and financial reward as the only markers of value. How shaming! Because, poetry is really for many things - it can be the map by which you plot passage through your own heart and the primer that allows you to estimate an interpretation of everyone else's. Or, as Keats put it (rather more elegantly): "A poet is a sage; a humanist, physician to all men..."
In this context, however, it is perhaps most important to recognise poetry's value precisely because it is neither a route to wealth nor stardom. After all, can you trust someone to be straight-forward when they are paid to tell you what you want to hear? No. There remains, therefore, an honesty in poetry that's often elusive elsewhere, perhaps in spoken word most of all.
You see, occasionally, perhaps even more rarely than that, I can find listening to a poet perform their work as redemptive as any experience I know. The sensation is momentary, fragile and necessarily unrecorded, just like the truth it speaks.
Bright Star official movie site