Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Useful poetry

In Something in nothing, Neil Astley asks whether poetry has any real agency in the world:
...[Seamus] Heaney's personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be "strong enough to help"...

...David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry (2000), showing how Bertolt Brecht's dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be "useful" was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht's poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather "a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation", for such poetry is, "to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world"...
Others will disagree regarding Brecht and propaganda, but I think Constantine's analysis is also relevant to at least two of Brecht's greatest plays: Galileo, and Mother Courage. And I think the shock of the two moments identified in my comments on Burning Capital comes from how those moments help one sense both a better way of being, and also a very much worse one.

[Note: Three others including me are sharing a stage with Neil Astley on 29 Feb.]

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