Poetry’s challenge to language and utilitarianism

8 March 2008

sean o’brien

Sean O’Brien has an article in The Guardian’s Review today in which he suggests that poetry is difficult for readers precisely because it is a challenge to the mundane way in which we now expect to use language (‘The facts, Mr Gradgrind…).

The difficulty that readers face owes much to the fundamentally prosaic and utilitarian view of language which dominates our period: speed, impact and “the facts” are pre-eminent. … “Read poetry: it’s quite hard,” the poet Don Paterson crisply suggested. To do so requires us to claim that imaginative space, and to live with Keats’s “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”, rather than rush to conclude and summarise. Part of what Eliot called “the shock of poetry” lies in the fact that what it offers is often both instinctively recognisable and at the same time resistant to interpretation – a three-dimensional experience for the imagination, not a mere scanning of captions.

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