Last night, in the International Bar, I launched a chapbook by Kerrie O'Brien, a young poet from Dublin. Seeing someone make a start as a poet, publishing in magazines and getting their first body of work out, got me thinking about why people do it and, I suppose, what makes them keep doing it. We know it's not for money or fame; even the most cursory involvement with the poetry scene almost anywhere extinguishes any hope a young writer may have had for well heeled celebrity. There is also the question of why should anyone out there care about, much less read or buy, any of the numerous volumes of poetry issued on an almost daily basis?
So why do we do it? The audience is minimal, the books hardly sell and the money is lousy. What is it for then? Is it enough to suggest, as poets often do, that we simply must write or that we can't live without it? I'm not sure. Those reasons seem inadequate somehow. They don't suggest anything about writing well.
Joseph Brodsky's assertion was that one of the most important distinctions between humans and other species is our use of language, words to be exact, and that poetry is the "supreme linguistic operation". He assigned to poetry an anthropological function. Is that why we do it? Are poets kind of pioneers of the human condition? Metaphysical surgeons mapping the design of the species and cloaking the organs and works in shrouds of words?
Brodsky was right of course, language and words distinguish us from every other species on the planet. Poetry survives many things and so too does our language. It passes along, even if only among dozens or hundreds, to be maintained, always finding new takers and adjusting as needed.
Through language we transmit information. The more we know about it, the more we realise it is not simply an instrument to make others believe what you believe or to buy the things you want to sell. Language is knowledge. It is our defence against the excuse: but I didn't know.
As for books, launches and the process of all that: it seems for poets that with each collection, each body of work, becomes less and less a destination in itself. They become more like stepping stones on the way to the next one, like Brecht's whiskey bars. They go without asking, always looking for the next poem just up ahead.
Is it maybe as Apollinaire, the French poet, critic, futurist and occasional art thief, wrote about what purpose poetry and art serve: that when primitive man wanted a device that would go, that would walk, he invented the wheel which, of course, in no way resembles a leg.
Maybe when we launch a book what we hope for is that it will move on from us, find its own place and leave us clear to get on with the next thing; that we will grapple with the operation of language as best we can and hope to succeed in whatever way possible in reaching our anthropological goal, as Brodsky had it, whether with old devices or new ones; and that we will maintain the capacity to see things in more than one way.
Poetry should always push you towards the new or at least towards the previously undiscovered. So, it's encouraging when you go to the basement of a bar in Dublin and it's packed with, mainly young, people who for whatever reason went along to see one more book of poems slip out the door and make its way to god knows where. Long may they not be jaded.