Why 'this burning and crested act'? is how Dylan Thomas might phrase the question asked and answered in poetrymonthly.com issue 137 by the journal's editor Martin Holroyd.
Holroyd's answer, rooted in long experience as poet, publisher, artist, graphic designer, editor, event-organiser, speaker, Dylan Thomas aficionado et alia must be more than worth its corn. P-i-R, with Martin Holroyd's blessing, takes pleasure in publishing here and now this more than significant editorial in full. Many of us will identify with the following sentiment succinctly presented in the proverbial nutshell:
It is one of those questions that is always being repeated. I suppose and suspect it is part of the grander question: Why art. When I look at the books on painting, graphic design and poetry that are crippling my bookshelves, not to mention finances, I am forced to ask: What good have they done me?
In economic terms very little. In terms of intellectual pleasure, a fair amount. There are choices to be made in life. One can turn away from 'the arts'; grab a six-pack or pour a large whisky, switch on the telly and watch an afternoon or evening's worth of mind-numbing pap about house moving, cookery, or watch a bunch of 'celebs' attempt to live with each other in isolation and wait for the inevitable to happen...Or have my already unstable paranoia about the mess the world is in massaged by yet another investigative journalist.
Oh yes! I have often slobbed out in front of the TV, with a whisky or two in the desperate hope that the folk who have control of this wonderful invention will make me feel I have achieved something humanly and culturally gratifying for myself instead of making me regret that I hadn't spent the evening in my office getting to grips with another poem, piece of artwork, working on pm.com, someone else's book or attempting to knacker-up yet another blues number on the guitar or simply reading.
All too often, I stun myself with alcohol and easy distraction instead of saying to myself that: 'Tonight I will bathe in such and such a poem and soak up every word for all their possible meanings and the elegance of its construction'. 'Tonight I will give myself a piece of art'. Hyperbole? Well - maybe, but such is my inner desire for an oasis of intellectual stimulus, satiation or even simple pleasure over gross boredom of spirit.
"I see the boys of summer in their ruin / Lay the gold tithings barren," (Dylan Thomas), and "Cannery Row in Monterey California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." (John Steinbeck). These are the words. These are the words that first gave me an inclination that there was life beyond a bit of woodwork, compound fractions, the unobtainable body of the long-legged RI teacher and a looming lifetime of teenage angst. Oh, how I needed to go to Cannery Row how I longed to be a boy of summer.
Steinbeck is correct. A 'quality of light' is a poem, just as are 'the boys of summer'. We all have seen a bit of paradise; a patch of country so beautiful that it can cause an ache of longing. As a male I have often seen, on a hot summer day, a girl so like a clean, cooling spring rain in a white summer dress. At the other truthful extreme there is a literature that portrays a human ugliness as hard as a diamond:
" 'And does everything in Mexico opress you?...' 'Almost everything!' she said, 'It always makes my heart sink. Like the eyes of the men in big hats - I call them peons. Their eyes have no middle to them. Those big handsome men, under their big hats, they aren't really there. They have no centre, no real I. Their centre is a raging black hole, like the middle of a maelstrom.' " (D H Lawrence)
Or we get a contrast of two aspects:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, / We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning, / We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day, / To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica / Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, / And to-day we have naming of parts. (Henry Reed).
The ironical contrast between classroom boredom and nature's beauty just beyond the window in this last example really sums up much of what, in my clumsy way, I have been trying to get at: Why poetry?
c) Martin Holroyd (2007)