a condition of being, not having

As we read, something is going on in us, something is coming into being. There is a realisation; the total economy, all the strategies of the poem bring it about. Lowell was right to say that a poem is an event, not the record of an event. And Auden, in that poem ('In Memory of W.B. Yeats') in which he asserts that poetry makes nothing happen, asserts with greater persuasiveness that it is 'a way of happening'. That happening is so intensely present we may weep or laugh aloud or shudder in terror - at what? At something 'only' there in our consciousness as we read. Such realisation is very presence.

That is the chief good and usefulness of poetry. It persuades or jolts us into what Lawrence called 'a new effort of attention' (Selected Literary Criticism, p. 90), it fills us with the achievement of that attention. There is no gainsaying the charge of poetry, nor how valuable it feels. It is a condition of being, not of having. It can't be had, it is intrinsically resistant to acquisitiveness. And by being alert and truthful and upholding contradictory possibilities, asserting homogeneity, championing a lively pluralism, acknowledging the essential irreducibility and intractability of life, poetry is the living contradiction of political speech and a gesture of defiance in the face of all reductive, co-ordinating and tyrannical political systems. We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Poetry of the Present" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.

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