Everyone, I hope it can be safely assumed, has strong, deeply felt emotions that they occasionally feel an intense desire to share with someone else. They can be feelings of love, hope, anger, despair; which exactly doesn’t really matter. But they must be overpowering. They have to make you want to announce to the world, “I love ___!” or “I believe in God!” or “I have been wronged!” or “I feel so alone!”
The thing about emotions like this is: usually, you can’t tell anyone about them. Unless you’re amazingly good friends with someone, going up to him and saying “I feel so alone” will just result in a moment of extreme awkwardness. This is where poetry comes in.
Poetry (among many other things it does) takes those emotions and captures them in language that by will make the reader feel those emotions, rather than just intellectually realize that the writer felt them at one point. Take an example from the life of (you guessed it) Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1884, he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges “WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER?”. So: what is the reaction of the reader to this? Perhaps pity that someone could be so distressed at life, but probably no more than that.
But look at a one of the “Sonnets of Desolation” that he wrote around that time. I’ll pick “No worst”, as that’s one of my favorites.
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
For me at least, these lines do not just convey the idea that Hopkins felt great despair at this point in his life; they force my entire consciousness to, for a few moments, try to take on the emotion that Hopkins felt when he wrote them. The last two lines, especially, echo powerfully in my mind; they express the emotion, one that I have had myself occasionally, better than I ever could.
That brings me to something that I find somewhat odd about poetry, and which I haven’t really formulated an opinion on yet. Namely, the emotional power of the poem is based on how well-written the poem is. More broadly, we demand that what a person says be well-crafted before we will believe what they say. Or perhaps “believe” is the wrong word – “care”, maybe. We don’t care about other people unless they can express their feelings in powerful poetic language. Does this not strike anyone else as odd?