Arguing the Exile or Excellence of Modern Poetry

Poet and KPU student Al-Hunaidi responds to Solway’s essay “O Poetry Where Art Thou?”

Nicole Kwit

In an essay published last month entitled “O Poetry Where Art Thou?” Canadian essayist and poet David Solway, writing for C2C Journal, says that he is “awaiting the return of poetry from cultural exile.”

“Most of the poetry written today … is neither visionary nor useful,” Solway claims in his article. “It does little to enhance our lives, prompt us to love the language, entice us to commit phrases to memory, or shed light upon obscurity. Poetry is meant to be used, like any created or invented object that changes how we live, feel and think.

While Solway is no doubt echoing the sentiment of at least a few of his contemporaries in the field of creative writing, how true his words ring for young poets just beginning to make their way in the world is debateable.

Sandra Al-Hunaidi, a student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who writes poetry, says that human beings are “objects that are made with purpose, and that is poetry.”

Through Al-Hunaidi’s eyes, poetry “makes the language more beautiful” and humanizes thoughts that could otherwise be mundane or monotonous. However, “putting [poetry] in a box,” labelling it, or attaching expectations to it can restrict the intention of the work, and saying that poetry being written today is “not useful” is simply being closed-minded.

Channelling Ezra Pound, Solway suggests that modern poets “treat the page as a catwalk”—that is, they treat the creation of poetic verse as delicately as possible. To this, Al-Hunaidi responds that poetry can very well be self-indulgent, as we are often self-indulgent by nature.

Solway also believes that most poetry students today are ignorant of the classics. He says that, after asking his students to recite a few lines from one of the literary greats—who he lists as Donne, Marvell, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Browning, Hopkins, Yeats, Frost, Larkin, Wilbur, and Layton—he was met with “blank stares.”

Rather than memorizing impactful phrases from poetry, Al-Hunaidi feels that, for modern students, “it’s more the emotion that resonates.” Their inability to recite classic lines could be because of the colloquial language used in a lot of older poetry, or because the structure nowadays is less strict, so they don’t see a need to study structure and form.

While Solway and Al-Hunaidi disagree on most elements of what makes poetry important, their opinions do overlap on a few points. Both agree that poetry has a purpose, whether it is to “break down preconceived ideas about life,” as Al-Hunaidi describes, or to “reverberate in the imagination,” as stated by Solway.

They also agree that poetry is a beautiful way to honour the language in which it is written, though they have different ideas about what that honour means.

Solway’s definition is based on a responsibility to the language in which the work is written. “Poetry is classically regarded as the custodian of the language, the curator of its power and purity,” he writes.

Al-Hunaidi’s definition is more abstract. “Poetry is just poetry,” she says.