Yesterday, someone asked me what I was reading. I happened to be reading the poetry of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Now, this is a man with, to quote Adrian Plass (another favourite), a brain the size of a planet. And a heart and spirituality to match. His poems are not easy. They are not lovely. They deal with the darkness and light of humanity, of the world around us. They are not easy to understand. They are richly layered with metaphor and meaning. They are not something you can read in the ten minutes before going to sleep, or with your mind on your dinner.
But, being a polite and well-mannered individual, I obligingly explained what I was reading and handed over the book for her perusal. Her response: “Poetry, how lovely! Poetry is so soothing, don’t you think?” I was hard-pressed to reply.
Poetry is not soothing. Not as a general rule. Some is, of course – but that’s not its role. Poetry is not there to make us feel better, although often it does (a happy by-product?). Poetry is there to reflect us, our experiences, our hopes and terrors and the very world we live in, in a mirror of words. Poetry is there to make us think, to make us see who we are, who we were and who we can be. Poetry gives us glimpses into our very soul. It’s not there to be pretty, or soothing – it’s there to sear itself down into the very core of our being.
Why would I want to be soothed when I can have the world opened up right in front of me?