• Lesley Saunders

Does poetry come out of feeling? What kinds of feeling? Can poetry treat feeling? Is there a relation between the feeling it comes out of and the feeling it treats?

These were the provocations given to symposium speakers to address. In response to them, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about the sometimes rather taken-for-granted relationship between poetry and feeling, questioning the notion that poetry arises from, and exists for the expression of, our human emotions of sorrow, joy, rage, pleasure, despair, regret, fear, love, loneliness, longing. (At this point I’m using the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’ interchangeably, though later I’ll suggest how we might understand them differentially.)

My contention — which I’ll illustrate with examples from just a handful of poets — is that, whilst the initial impulse for writing may be an emotion felt by the poet, the poem itself is not primarily for the expression of that emotion, but, as with other art forms, for something more complex, subtle and self-reflexive. That is to say, the treatment of feeling through the assigning of meaning. After all, there is nothing very original about our emotions, especially the strong ones: they are common (one might go so far as to say common-place), even although as individuals we’re wont to believe we’re the first to experience this depth of passion, this chasm of loss, this cliff-edge of desire.

I think I first started to reflect critically on the relationship between poetry and feeling after encountering Robert Hughes’ book and television series about modern art, The Shock of the New, in the early 1980s; the gist of one of his many vivid and provocative assertions has stayed with me ever since:

The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. (Hughes 1991: 9: my emphases)

Hughes makes the point more succinctly elsewhere in the same weighty book:

Art discovers its true social use, not on the ideological plane, but by opening the passage from feeling to meaning. (1980: 409; my emphasis)

Here are a few short lines from a poem called ‘Soul Food’, which I wrote twenty years ago:

… You 

misconstrue me if you think I feel
more than I think or find feeling
more congenial than thought. I am hungry
for meaning.

(Saunders 1997: 18)

In writing this I was also deliberately challenging a common but spurious correlation that’s made — in popular psychology magazines and websites as much as by ordinary folk — between intellection and maleness on the one hand, and feeling and femaleness on the other.

Meanwhile, by ‘meaning’ I mean conveying a sense of something intentional, intelligible, significant, communicable to oneself and others in the graphical and/or oral mode of language. Meaning-making is a cognitive and purposive activity — though I must immediately qualify this by saying that it is an activity whose exercise goes wider and deeper than intellection or propositional reasoning; to borrow Hughes’ words, it is that which does the work of ‘mediating… between a sense of history and an experience of the world’. We return to certain poems again and again for their cognitive value, for the light they cast, and for the questions they raise; we find ourselves relishing the provisionality they urge upon us.


To be saturated with a sense of history a poem does not have to deal in grand narratives or large-looming socio-political events, though Seamus Heaney (for example, in his poem ‘Punishment’ (1975: 37)) and Adrienne Rich (as in her poem ‘What Kind of Times Are These?’ (1995)), to take two very different poets, show us how that can be done without the poem becoming a mouthpiece for an ideology.

For an even more multi-layered treatment of history, feeling and meaning, I’ll offer one of my all-time favourite poems. It’s by Eavan Boland, whose work is concerned to reveal how the daily experiences of women influence and are influenced by history and politics. The poem, called ‘The Journey’ (1987: 39-42), subverts the trope of the poet being guided on a journey into and through the under/other-world by a (previous poet’s) spirit, in order to create a dialogue with the past: Boland’s guide is nominally Sappho, the Greek poet of love, though the figure probably also recalls[1] the Irish aisling poems in which Ireland is personified as a female. The question she urges the poet to consider is how to create poetry that is equal to the troubles and tragedies of real women’s lives.

Through its rather formal style reminiscent of WB Yeats, as well as through its conjuring of the lost souls in Book VI of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poem locates itself within a literary tradition — that is, within ‘history’ construed as text(s) — which it also destabilises. Here is just the beginning:

And then the dark fell and “there has never”
I said “been a poem to an antibiotic:
never a word to compare with the odes on
the flower of the raw sloe for fever…” (39)

Poet and reader are taken on a journey back through the centuries when diseases like ‘cholera, typhus, croup, diphtheria’ killed thousands of children, and when mothers of all classes and walks of life held their dead infants in their arms, ‘making terrible pietas’. The poem’s pathos is given depth and weight by the poet’s being made to witness history’s ‘shadows’, ‘the children of the plague’; the poet’s love and terror for her own children is tempered by her having to acknowledge the much more terrible experiences of these other mothers, that ‘Between us was the melancholy river’.

The poem succeeds in being a tribute to countless nameless women and children, to the benefits of modern medical science and to the power of poetry to tell unromantic truths, whilst at the same time giving tender personal expression to ‘the grace of love’.

Boland’s insistence on language being equal to the task of addressing ‘the real thing’ is a reminder of how poetry concerns itself with the history of words themselves, their etymologies holding — like the archaeology of materials — evidence of migrations, power struggles, settlements, kinships. Poets exploit their affordances with relish and meticulous care, as Jane Griffiths, in her poem ‘What the Translator Knows’ (2008), intimates in these lines: ‘The crack of bone in three different languages / … / The fine line between fear and panic and terror.

Griffiths asks us to attend to how these English near-synonyms are inflected with different nuances by their origins in Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin respectively. Whilst we may not be wholly conscious of the back-story of every single word we use, we write with a general intuition of the rich lexical endowments of English[2] , making choices about the kind of vocabulary to use that are often simultaneously semantic, musical and philological. This is another way of ‘mediating between a sense of history and an experience of the world’.


I’ll turn now to the other assertion I’ve quoted of Hughes’, that art ‘opens the passage from feeling to meaning’. Meanings in poetry can, of course, be metaphysical, theological, political, psychological, ethical; also playful, ambiguous, ambivalent, baffling, multiple. Most poets will say that writing a poem is an exploratory activity, through which meaning emerges rather than being foreknown at the outset; some poets would go further and say that there’s no point in writing a poem if you already know what you want to say.

This is because what makes the project interesting, worthwhile and creative is the choices and judgements poets make in the iterative process of drafting and editing a poem, judgements not just about subject matter and thematic preoccupations but also about metaphor, allusion, association, ellipsis and evocation, rhyme, rhythm, white space/silence — in other words, how well they believe they have managed, by the final draft, to produce something whose semantic, syntactic and sonic elements have combined to create a depth of meaning unique to that poem. The process feels both intuitive and unpredictable, both within and beyond the poet’s control: poets often talk about what the poem demands, as if there were some alchemy at work, hidden from sight and as often as not transmuting what the poet initially had in mind.

Consequently, a poem’s meaning can never be fully paraphrased; as readers we have to stay open to the illumination and emerging insights that a poem offers, the attentiveness and inquisitiveness it invites on reading and re-reading, the capacity to be in uncertainty and irresolution it requests, rather than limiting ourselves to searching for the propositional knowledge and/or for the emotional frisson we may assume it should provide.

Moreover, these features allow certain poems to create meaning not so much by articulating a message as through summoning a mood, in order to catch the evanescence of experience, convey a vision, invoke the uncanny, invite a haunting — exemplified in these three short lines from a recent poem by John Burnside (2019), who is a master of this mode: ‘the fleet // mysterium that runs / from skin to skin’

Here’s the whole of a short poem by Burnside (2009: 11).


Like a summer of fog and midges
come overnight

to wrap you, bone by bone,
in its yellowing velvet,

she finds you at three in the morning
brushing your hair,

and that shudder and dunt at the pier
is the ferry arriving…

The poem’s control of tone and mood enables us to recognise almost straightaway the paradox at the heart of such work, which is that the act of committing words to paper concretises the intangible, arrests the ephemeral, traps the fugacity; and that that forms part of their meaning.

Jane Draycott is another poet who can create a mood that calls up a whole world of time and place within the microcosm of a poem, as in ‘The Return’ (2016: 38), which begins:

Accident has brought them together,
the grand piano and the single chair
listening in the abandoned sanatorium
for night’s quiet breathing…

It is not that feeling is lacking in this poetry or has been subsumed to some message or overridden by too much detail or too much explanation; more that the feeling — which is evoked by the quasi-narrative allusions to a past that is both intimate and historical, and a frailty that is both material and psychological — is generated by the ‘dream-like clarity’ of the work (to quote the book’s blurb). We know without being told that this is a fin-de-siècle end-of-an-era Europe, which the poem seems intent on exploring, probing, questing with a conciseness and tact that is characteristic of Draycott’s work generally. I wrote in a review (Saunders 2017) that ‘she never presumes to tell us what we already know, but instead invites us to activate our knowledge in the service of a richly associative and multi-layered understanding’.

The same collection contains several poems composed in homage to or memory of someone. Each of these poems enacts a strong sense of etiquette and decorum — no confidences betrayed, no intrusive empathising — whilst managing to convey something unexpected that has the ring of truthfulness. I want to look in some detail at a poem that was written for Peter Scupham, ‘Rosa ‘Madame A. Meilland’ (Peace)’ (Draycott 2016: 48). The poem succeeds in being both a personal communication on which we are eavesdropping and a more general address in which we feel included. It begins with the second person pronoun, so richly ambiguous in this context: ‘You could in the last of daylight cultivate a rose / and name it for your mother.’ The opening of the second stanza looks similar — ‘You could watch the child by the railway who knows / all there is to know about weeds and fire…’ — but by this time that ‘you’ surely extends far beyond the singular and specific. The poem invites us to contrast the garden rose, symbol of civilisation and in this particular case the cultivar named Peace after the end of WWII, with the ‘spreading weed’ of war, fear of war. 

But this twelve-line poem accomplishes much more than that. Embedded in it, for instance, is the fact that the rose was cultivated in the years before the war by the French breeder F Meilland, who indeed named it after his mother. Subsequently, foreseeing the invasion of France, he sent cuttings to colleagues in other countries to ensure its survival — hence, in the first stanza, ‘A ship in the bay / might sail with it.’ With similar economy, the poem goes on, ‘On the dockside gantry and willow / could bow their heads’ — a witty and poignant image that the reader might nonetheless almost disregard in the onward movement of the stanza to: ‘But no known prayer or herb / can prevent the coming night’s invasion…’.

So — despite the insistent dynamic of the poem, the ship, the invasion, the railway — let me linger over the sentence a moment or two longer: ‘gantry’, with its mechanical associations, prepares the way for the ‘railway’ and then the ‘bayonets and flaming spires’ of the second stanza; these two also pick up, aurally as well as imagistically, the ‘fire’ that’s ‘flowering’ at the close of the first stanza. ‘Willow’, presumably a willow-tree at that point in the poem, has in the very next line seeded, through word association, the image of rosebay willowherb, commonly known as fireweed because of its tendency to grow on waste ground and burnt land. This then blossoms fully in the second stanza into ‘the new wild tribe’ that witnesses from the bank the train in the night, the train of darkness and heat and terror. We can hardly avoid comprehending the implied horror of that final image — even though, or no doubt precisely because, none of the horror is actually described.

I’m left awe-struck by this precision of imagery and mastery of music which holds a welter of feelings in a net of intensely intelligent and intelligible meaning.

I’ll allow myself one more example: it’s a poem by Michael Symmons Roberts, called ‘Jairus’ (2004: 17), about the amazing recovery of a child from some grave accident or illness, in which her father’s feelings of awe, fear, love and joy are very near the surface. However, these feelings are given greater significance, a wider and deeper context, simply by the title, which refers us to one of the reported miracles performed by Jesus Christ. The story is told in very similar terms in all three synoptic gospels, and concerns the curing of the twelve-year-old daughter of ‘a certain ruler of the synagogue’ as she lay dying.


So, God takes your child by the hand
and pulls her from her deathbed.
He says: ‘Feed her, she is ravenous.'

We can imagine the narrator of the poem being one of the disciples who is addressing the father directly, trying to make human and humane sense of the notion of ‘coming back from the dead’, of ‘reanimation’ — the soul re-entering the body. Foods are named with a kind of relish and physical appetite is celebrated: appetite both being and representing the hunger for living. The mystery of incarnation (generally, not only in a theological sense) infuses the poem and lifts it out of the realm of purely personal feeling.

The troubling and troublesome relationship between corporeality, death and the idea of resurrection has preoccupied Symmons Roberts for some time: the raising of Lazarus from the dead (told only in St. John’s gospel) seems to inform the ‘Food for Risen Bodies’ series in the same collection as ‘Jairus’. Indeed, the titles of other poems in Corpus — ‘Corpse’, ‘Corporeality’, ‘Carnivorous’, ‘Flesh’, ‘Last Things’, ‘Post-Mortem’ — suggest that for this poet the theme needs more than a few poems to explore its meanings, enigmas and possibilities; the same fascination can be detected in several of the poems in his much later collection, Drysalter (2013).


My final paragraph or two of speculation concerns whether there is a useful distinction to be made in a discussion of poetry between feeling and emotion. Certainly some researchers would argue that feeling, defined as sensation, is fundamentally physiological, private and invisible; whereas emotion — from Latin animi motus, movement of the mind or soul — is visible, shared and, most importantly, culturally shaped and socially learned. We can recognise these cultural and social influences at work by noting the way that new words for emotions emerge from time to time. For example, the term ‘empathy’ was coined in the 1880s in relation to art appreciation, and only later used in the context of psychology, presumably because it was found to be a useful concept that meant something different from ‘sympathy’.

Does this mean that new emotions emerge? Well, perhaps not, but the significance of particular emotions seems to change considerably over time. The constructivist position is that the different expression — in different cultures and/or at different times — of an emotion changes how we experience the emotion. Emotions are experienced within a specific cultural nexus, such as within a religious environment; their prevalence is typically ascribed to categories, such as male/female, public/private, collective/individual, which can differ greatly between cultures and contexts. ‘Melancholy’ might make a good case study, especially in relation to men’s emotions and what they are supposed to feel and why: the refined sensibility of the 18th century which made it quite desirable for men to weep openly was superseded by the requirement of the early 20th century for men to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ in an increasingly militaristic environment.

All of the above surely suggests that our emotions, or at least the significances we assign to them, are not universal nor transhistorical; and, by extension, that literature has a potential task in exploring, complexifying, scrutinising and refining emotions and how we experience them: ‘treating’ them in both the literary and the psychoanalytic senses of the word. For me, this entails being wary of using terms like ‘authentic’ to valorise certain types of autobiographical poetry over the kind of poetry which seeks — in the way I hope I have shown with the examples I have given — to mediate between history and the self, and to ‘open the passage from feeling to meaning’.



[1] This possibility is suggested in a commentary at
http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/greekplays/poetry/eavan-boland/eavan-boland-poems-classical-referents/journey (accessed 29 April 2020)

[2] cf. the observation made by James Meek (London Review of Books, 6 June 2019, p.26) that ‘[in English] the lexis of labour and daily life is skewed towards Anglo-Saxon, the lexis of intellectual analysis is highly Latinate, and the lexis of emotional self-reflection and of power leans to French.’


Works cited: 


Boland, E 1987 The Journey and other poems, Manchester: Carcanet

Burnside, J 2009 The Hunt in the Forest, London: Cape

Burnside, J 2019 ‘At Notre Dame de Reims’, London Review of Books, 41 (7), 4 April

Draycott, J 2016 The Occupant, Manchester: Carcanet

Griffiths, J 2008 Another Country, Hexham: Bloodaxe Books

Heaney, S 1975 North, London: Faber & Faber

Hughes, R 1980 The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, London: British Broadcasting Corporation. Revised 1991, London: Thames and Hudson. The specific quotes I mention can be viewed at
https://www.countercurrents.org/polya240912.htm (accessed 25 May 2020)

Rich, A 1995 Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995, New York, NY: WW Norton & Company

Saunders, L 1997 Christina the Astonishing, with Jane Draycott and Peter Hay, Reading: Two Rivers Press

Saunders, L 2017 Review of The Occupant, Tears in the Fence, Issue 66

Symmons Roberts, M 2004 Corpus, London: Cape

Symmons Roberts, M 2013 Drysalter, London: Cape