For the upcoming National Poetry Month, which starts in April, I’ve been thinking about places we find poetry outside of poetry books. Of course, if you think about it, the subject of poetry can be very wide, for poetry is often used as a metaphor to describe a moment of beauty or clarity that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the verbal art of poetry proper, but instead is related to our experience. For example, this morning, driving to work, I saw a group of black birds rise up into the sky, and the scene to me was like poetry – there was something graceful about it, even moving, how they all rose up together as is borne up by a great wind, and how quickly it happened, and as quickly moved out of view. Of course, I wasn’t reading a poem about birds, I was seeing birds in flight, but something about the experience struck me as poetic. But what does this even mean?
John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political economist from the 19th century, also had some interesting thoughts about poetry. In an essay he wrote called “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” Mill argued that poetry should not be defined based on “metrical composition” alone, “metrical composition” referring to the way in which poetry is often concerned with the rhythm of a sentence or a line. But Mill thought defining poetry exclusively based on its focus on rhythm was not true to the spirit of what we mean when we talk about poetry in the wider sense. Mill goes on to say in the essay that he does think poetry contains a “difference” that sets it apart from other experiences, though this difference can be found in other art forms as well, including prose, music, sculpture, painting and architecture, and maybe even outside those art forms. So what is this difference?
Here is how Mill describes this difference:
“The object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions;—and therein is poetry sufficiently distinguished from what Wordsworth affirms to be its logical opposite—namely, not prose, but matter of fact, or science. The one addresses itself to the belief; the other, to the feelings. The one does its work by convincing or persuading; the other, by moving. The one acts by presenting a proposition to the understanding; the other, by offering interesting objects of contemplation to the sensibilities.”
So for Mill, the opposite of poetry is not prose. The opposite is instead “matter of fact, or science.” For Mill, there is a wide gulf that separates the things that persuade us (having to do with beliefs, facts, and even reason), and the things that move us (having to do with feelings, emotions). Indeed, Mill believe there is an intimate connection between the world of poetry and the world of feelings. Poetry refers to an experience during which we are moved, during which our feelings are stirred and we are pulled out of our habitual thoughts to contemplate something interesting, different, even sublime. Poetry slows us down, so that we can focus on something that shakes us, that makes us feel wonder.
Although Mill does distinguish poetry from science, I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that science can also be poetic. I’m sure readers of the late Stephen Hawking would agree that there is something awe-inducing about contemplating the universe itself, which causes us to feel wonder at the sheer fact of existence at all!
So, dear reader, what are some moments in your life when you have a poetic experience, when you experience the poetry of your own life? Does it have to do with a relationship, of seeing a friend or loved one smiling or laughing? Does it have to do with a moment in nature, noticing the color of the sky or marveling at the growth of a certain tree? Does it happen during peak moments, like a wedding or a funeral, or does it happen in quiet moments, like cooking dinner with a spouse? Either way, I hope that during this National Poetry Month you are able to feel and experience and see the poetry in your own life – and maybe even write a poem about it!