Illusions as he list phantasms and dreams

(Milton Paradise Lost, Book IV)

These passages from Shakespeare and Milton imply that the power of language can indeed be fearful: something more than just words when judged for effect. These writers correctly acknowledge the power that lies in their hands, not just in the hands of their villainous counterparts. The ultimate aim of Milton's poem is to whisper things conceived as a force for good, but the power of the whisper is the same: a transforming power, it gets inside the feelings and inclinations; close to the ear, it forges illusions and dreams. At this level, language is not just a series of acquired message-producing codes but an event in the mind before the rational angels intervene. By means of unusually strong voice rhythms, it suspends judgement and the reasoning faculties in favour of what T.S.Eliot called the 'auditory imagination'.

The idea that poetry can do this more than any other of the verbal arts accounts for the belief that it carries high risk responsibility. Something out of the ordinary is implicated:

the poet is a special kind of person, a legitimate trespasser on the sacred, someone whose own ear has been whispered into by powerful, devilish or divine messengers. It is not my aim to argue either for or against this view. The relationship between a poet and his or her community does not have to involve a tiny select minority of eminent writers and a large amorphous majority of non-writers. In certain communities everyone writes, not only the specialist. But in all communities where poetry has a presence, the belief holds that within the mind a space exists for words to generate meanings that will transform. In other words, imagination is real; hearing Milton or Shakespeare can still awaken it; it can be awakened with or without their methods and constructions of the world, and new forms of awakening can be found.

Acts of Attention

Writing that seduces, persuades, argues, comforts, contradicts, writing resembling speech but speech with impact—poetry can display all these tones in its register. It aims to throw a charge between two points, the first being the subject, topic, piece of the world, and the second the reader s responsive imagination: the space in the mind that responds to sound and image. It makes use of rhythm and other forms of sound quality with that imagination primarily in view. It aims to root itself there so that, like Eve, we become unwarily entangled. This would seem at first to require either very susceptible readers or very heavy methods of literary technology, neither of which we can count on. But fortunately, one aspect of poetry is surprise: a sense that things in the world about us are surprising and that words, even obvious and simple words, can be organised to enhance surprise. A word often used to describe this effect of surprise is de-familiarisation, a 'making strange' of the things we usually think of as familiar and not worth a second look. The focus of a poem is so sharp that it de-familiarises; it does make things worth looking at twice, as in the poem below by William Carlos Williams. As we shall see, the language is straightforward; clever and elaborate metaphor is not necessary.

'Proletarian Portrait'

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