Poetry is alive and well in Britain. I doubt if it has ever been so abundant, various, and democratic. People write it and people read it; there is a lively sub-culture dedicated to its practice and enjoyment. Much gets published too, by some big houses and, still more creditably, by a determined fraternity of small presses for no financial profit. The problem is selling it. Too few bookshops will even stock it; and the biggest, which might do a great deal of good, are managed from afar in a spirit of anxious philistinism. Poetry, in that material area, needs all the help it can get.

But anthologies sell. Neil Astley’s Staying Alive has brought its 500 poems to many thousands of readers in Britain and America. Sad then to note in some critical reviews of the book, and in some comments on poetry anthologies altogether, a large dose of disgust that so much poetry was being ‘marketed’ (that is, made available) to a general public. Surely the general public could not read it properly? Poetry, thus defended, looked to be the private property of those who wrote such reviews.

Poetry has continually been annexed by one small group of humans or another. It might be the literate bit of the aristocracy or the upper bourgeoisie; or there were, perhaps still are, schools within the academies who, like lawyers, have a professional interest in keeping the texts private. Some poets too, it must be said, have written themselves into an inner circle no larger than the self. But the tide now is all the other way, towards the thorough emancipation and democratization of the art. There will always be counter revolutions, but ever more absurd.

Poetry is an intrinsically democratic art because the stuff of it, what it is about, is common – common in a dual sense: occurring frequently, and common to humankind. People love, hate, do good, do ill, they rejoice, they grieve, they die. Always have, always will, in vastly changing material circumstances which poetry must, of course, always take full account of. Poetry tries to say what it is like being human in particular time and place. There is great diversity on a lasting common ground. And we must insist that the stuff of poetry is common. The idea that it – the stuff – belongs, as experience, only to exceptional people is as absurd and discredited as the old idea that tragedy happens to nobs and comedy to the rest of us.

The language of poetry, the means by which its common stuff is realized, is not common. At times the language of poetry has been very far removed from common speech; at present, most often, it may approximate to it. But it never was and never will be common speech. It is other, and has to be. Therein lies the difficulty for people coming new to poetry. They are told that poetry is for them and for everyone because it deals with the stuff of common life. Then they meet it and find it very strange. When I say I am glad that more people read more poetry and believe that anthologies like Staying Alive can do only good, I do not at all mean that the language of poetry must forfeit its essential strangeness, because without that strangeness it will not work.

Why must there be strangeness? Because much in the way we live now, under our politics, in our institutions, coarsens and reduces our feelings, actually towards the point of effective insensibility. Even to recognize and participate in a common humanity we need a shock of strangeness; which the language of poetry (by that I mean the total linguistic organization of a poem) is calculated to administer. Poetry may approach very close indeed to a semblance, an artistic equivalent, of common speech; but must never merge, or it will forfeit its power to shock. Too far in the other direction, into wilful difficulty, and it will idle in its own hermeticism, as useless as scrap metal in orbit round the globe of life.

If I say that such poetry – the wilfully difficult – is useless I imply that the rest may be useful. Indeed, I assert it: poetry is useful. Another sad ingredient in the above mentioned hostile reviews was an embarrassment, amounting almost to disgust, at the very idea that poems might actually be of some use to the people reading them; that a human being reading a poem might actually be helped by doing so. But why should poetry not be useful? Why should it not help? If it does no such thing then all its strangeness is idle, the demands it makes exhaust themselves, in writer and reader, in a little act of cleverness, and their whole effect is only the brainy thrill of solving some puzzle too hard for most people. A poetry merely for that would have gone into extinction long ago, and good riddance.

A poem is neither a crutch nor a box of pills, and cannot help in the way that either of those might. Nor is it Thought for the Day, a speech by our Leader, a bus time-table nor the instructions that come in international sign language with your flatpack wardrobe. It is not edifying, helpful or useful in the ways any of those might be. How then?

I return to two things already mentioned. First the necessary otherness of the poem’s language. That – its rhythms, its imagery, its shape and gesture – is the signal that something is being required of us that is not required of us by most of the discourse we ordinarily engage in or submit to. It is the signal to hearken. At that first moment the poem excites, and we acknowledge, a need; which is, for more, other and better possibilities in our lives. A utopian quickening takes place at once; a disposition in us, never quite eradicated, wakens. This verifiable experience seems to me valuable in itself; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t call it, even only as disposition, useful and helpful. Because its likely immediate effect is one that derives from the second factor in poetry already mentioned: its commonness. Reading a poem, we are induced, through the agency of conventional black signs on a sheet of paper, into participation in other lives. Reading poetry is mostly solitary, its effect is communal. It connects the reader, across gender, race, culture, time and space with other possible ways of being human; it does not fuse and merge us; on the contrary, on the ground of common humanity, it points up difference and variety.

That usefulness is both personal and social. People are helped in suffering when they witness, through reading, the large human extent of it; likewise in their enjoyment; and they are enlivened both in their own sense of present self, and in a sense of what that self might become, by dealings, through reading, with other selves among the living and the dead. The social implication of that is obvious. I don’t say the connectedness of the poem, and the feeling of connectedness engendered by the poem in its reader, are immediately transferable to social living. Of course not. But they make a potent analogy, and the mind of the citizen needs good analogies, better ideas for social life, so that the discrepancy between the way we live and the way we might live will always be apparent and undeniable. I mentioned the democratization of the art of the poetry, and meant chiefly its wide dissemination through all dialects and every vernacular; but my idea of democracy and my idea of the workings of a poem (any poem, not just those addressing the question of our social living) have much in common: both want wakefulness, variety, a lively pluralism, contradiction, to work as they should.

A poem should never be wilfully difficult. But it should be uncompromising in its otherness and should engage and ask a lot of the reader’s feelings and intelligence. In that too, in that integrity and demandingness, the poem, in this real world, is a polemical act on the side of fuller life. If that sounds far-fetched, glance at the worst of our newspapers, the worst of our television, listen, briefly, to our leaders and managers when they evade and condescend. A cretinized populace is easier to manage than one that is wakeful and will answer back. By all the means we can muster, poetry among them, we must wake up and answer back.

Poetry will not save the world. A wakeful citizenry might, by freely electing and closely monitoring its own responsible leaders. But when people deplore the spread of poetry, and when they deny or belittle its power to help, I do wonder whether they have quite realized how bad our situation is. Perhaps they ‘see, not feel’, and they need the shock of poetry to make the scales fall from their eyes. Then they would see and feel how far we are from any true republic; even the idea of it, of the res publica, struggles to survive. The environment gets spoiled; citizens are reduced to units of purchasing power; their aspirations are thwarted and the idea they might ever have of themselves is almost systematically debased. Surely in the life and death struggle – and it is one – for a social order that will engage and foster our humanity we need all the help we can get, and poetry is indeed, because of the demands it makes, because it excites in us what Shelley called a “want and power”, a very present help.

I am writing this in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The train from here to New York passes through a terrain of spectacular ugliness. It looks like an entire trashed planet, abandoned and its denizens gone off to planets new, to trash them also. The only colours are the numerous flags, the jolly Stars and Stripes, planted in the industrial tundra like assertions of victory on a cluttered battlefield.

There is another thing poetry can do. It can contradict ugliness. A poem, like any work of art, is an act to make beauty. The language of a poem, effective, as I have suggested, because it quickens a disposition to live more connectedly, acts also by virtue of its beauty as a running and intrinsic contradiction of much of what environs us day by day. Again, it won’t save the world. Signing up to Kyoto might. But a citizenry with a keen sense of beauty will be less tractable, less biddable into vandalism than one in whom that sense has been exterminated. We need citizens who, in that respect, are easily affronted. The wish for beauty, like the wish to be more serious, should be at work in any humane politics.