Poetry speaks to what it is to be human, or it is not poetry. Just as some attempt to insulate themselves from discomfort, so would some insulate poetry from passion, preferring it cerebral only and safely dissected, if not desiccated, that the discomfort of interior growth and unplanned change might allow a comforting conceit of our sufficiency.
We can erect barriers to the unwashed masses unconversant in the classics in order to preserve our proprietary appreciation in sterile cleanliness and safety, but to do so is to make our poetry also sterile and impotent.
Poetry will be produced and known by the loving, the dying, and the changing. Poetry is the language of the living creature, is of and for life, and is only experienced first-hand, yet whether reading or writing, poetry is a shared interior event.
Poetry, like sex, is best enjoyed enthusiastically in the collective first person. The pronouns of sex are "we" and "us", and so ought the pronouns of poetry be. Some people are reserved and cerebral in their sexuality, dissipating those Dionysian energies with IMV inappropriate Apollonian analytics, supposing that somehow the organ of the brain is less distasteful than other organic senses. I wish them well in their transcendence from living whole in a kiss. I wish them well in their transcendence from living life as a kiss. Different people are different, sure, and some in the intelligentsia are authentically and naturally *so* cerebral that until an experience is abstract it is as if a distant illusion. Some few of such beings perhaps must even approach poetry, if at all, through secondary experience, like voyeurs who need a glass barrier to enjoy intimacy.
Sex and poetry are both creative and intimately communicative. Yes, I am gauche to say so. Yes I offend. Yes I say things I suppose to be of substance and content. I prefer to risk being wrong sometimes to never having the brass to be right. I think it is fine to be shouted down for speaking controversy. I think it is good to be thought at times odd because my ideas are variously outlandish, barbaric, or alien. I think the intellectual inbreeding has gone on long e-damn-nough, that the barbarian has a function, and that life is to be lived first hand.
As an aside, this "inbreeding" analogy is a major part of why I assert that the Internet and global communication between *people* is of paramount importance to humanity, why Usenet is more important than the gaudy commercialized web, and why NG spammers are backstreet criminals. But to get back to poetry
A person reading or hearing poetry is sharing in its act, is sharing in its creation. A person who first analyses poetry and prefers making comparisons and likenesses to immediately experiencing it is not sharing its act or creation, but only distancing themselves from the hazards of becoming. Best is the activity experienced in the imperative immediate passion, and savored, recognized, and understood in the calm aftermath. Becoming is a state fraught with danger and discomfort for static intellectual structures organized in the pattern of calcified classic idealism. The living spirit, like a seed, must first itch inside and then burst zir shell to give forth, in becoming zir potential, but if that seed will not burst, it is sterile, still-born, lifeless. Bursting the shell must be uncomfortable, I would think even agonizing. For me it seems like a tumescent itching sensation in the awareness that will not go away until the needed bursting brings explosive satisfaction and fecund productivity. In comparison, avoiding change and growth can feel comfortable, even unto insensate rot.
And yes, I gladly concede the point that the appreciation of poetry is greatly enhanced the more of it you have read and thought about and discussed. I gladly concede the point that to communicate effectively *about* poetry it is advisable to know its history. But I rage urgently that poetry must first be *lived* to be known, must be unreservedly embraced, tightly, in immediate vitality, if it is to become true poetry. You cannot know poetry while excluding its impact in safety. Abandon your reserve and austere distance when opening past the fly leaf. Whether your poetic lover's name is Sappho, Keats or Snyder, there will be time enough for reflection and intellection after the creative act explodes unto sated content. Then the poet may have dozed off under covers, and the ceiling is become contemplative to appreciative eyes.
I don't intend to propose that poetry is not intellectual, that it cannot contain mind meat or consciousness candy. If there can be a "best" poetic, it should meet and inspire the appreciator at every sapid level of being.
Poetry is never solitary. It only occurs shared. I may be more liberal than some poets in that I allow it quiet reading, but I am not so loose as to consider it masterbatory.
Poetry addresses what it is to be human. Human culture progresses through time generation after generation, passing parent to child what is perhaps our only authentic treasure, which is the world culture. I speak of culture in the singular because I think that certain basic elements of human culture are shared east and west, rich and poor. I speak of it in the singular because at root all high arts share a common bedrock, a foundation of values universal among humanity.
We can talk of Japanese Culture as being different from Argentinean Culture, and American Urban Culture as different from American Rural Culture, but all are nevertheless cultures, and all are also living human artifacts. Living, in the sense I intend here, is not a corporeal creature in taxonomic terms, but a verbaic quality of growing and evolving within the collective us. One element of human culture shared in all subsets is poetry in some form.
Poetry is passed from parental generation to child evolved from what was to what is, and to understand what has come to be it is beneficial to understand what was. But it is not a prerequisite to understand what was poetry to know poetry itself. Talking about poetry often requires referring to specific examples and references, yes, but speaking poetry is itself, and I hold that poets can talk about it as itself without referring to titular external references and excerpts until a question is posed which has no other reply. To illumine who I hold to be poets, however, notice the emphatic point I have made time and again that the reader necessarily is poetic, and a poet, though never a line zie pens.
Legacy poetry, received from temporally distant poets, are similarly removed from our cultural context as poetry received from other cultures. We can refer to how it affects us now, but this is no guarantee that our affections are the same as those which originally greeted the first edition. Or is poetry more universal than specific cultures and specific languages? Perhaps it is.
The reader is also a poet because the words on a page are just the signatures of ideas and thoughts, requiring interpretation and cognition to be reborn alive. Words are the ashes of the phoenix, and for a read poem to take flight requires shared meaning. It is a limitation for the avant-garde, I should think, that a poem cannot *be* until the readership can achieve "interior resonance". This is especially debilitating for those diseased poets whose themes are not perceptibly desirable. As a boundary cannot be known until both sides are realized, so too is the bleeding edge inaccessible until popularly consolidated.
I do not wish to step on toes, but I think poetry is in some sense religious. One of the most beautiful pieces of prose I have come across was the first chapter of the Book of John, read in the original Ionian Greek. I hazard to suggest it is actually poetry cast as prose. Hesiod, in his "Theogeny", identified what appear to be primary human characteristics in his account of the coming to be of the Greek gods as if those gods were paradigmatic of the elements of human beings, as personae. Many other religions, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or pantheistic similarly echo human characteristics in their propositions of personified divinity. It is part of my proposition that the way poetry works is similarly related to the elements of our humanity. If I adequately evoke emotive reaction in a reader with a poem, then I have produced a stimulus which has affected an element of that reader's humanity. I know that when I read some passages of what I consider great poetry the effect can be likened to the descriptions of John of the Cross of the experiences of the religious mystic as easily and closely as it can be likened to the effects of listening to Beethoven's Ninth. I resonate emotively. I am not suggesting that my experience is the same as John's or Ludwig's, but only that the experiences seem in similar order and scale.
I find it an interesting consequence (of a rational humanism which takes religious representations of deity as human paradigmatic personae) that prophecy interprets into roughly Second Foundation socio-historical projections (ref.: Isaac Asimov, Foundation Trilogy).
Li Po addressed, among other themes, serenity, a theme I also esteem. Thus, though Li Po wrote in formal Chinese centuries ago I can access his poetry at least at that level. When he writes of the cleansing of the mind, washed in the sound of the rushing brook as the temple garden bell is struck, I dig it deep.
I have to concede the point regarding the difference in reading in the original tongue, reflecting upon the comparison of even the Ben Jowett translations and reading in the Greek myself. Nevertheless I refuse adamantly to deny myself the cross-cultural poetics merely because a translation is not adequate: it just means I have to work harder for my reward.
Poetry is mildly hypnotic, especially in soundly crafted meter, and addresses responsive elements of the psyche. It is less subliminal and intimate perhaps than great music, but more intricate conceptually than tonal sculpture. The cadence and rhythm, mot juste, envelope meaning into trance, opening vistas into things seldom considered, and provoking awareness where was obscurity. Poetry can be an effective rhetorical tool.
Poetry is elementary human community.