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‘Thought, in poetry, is felt’

Alright, sometimes a poem can be too conceptual, too austerely cerebral, too loftily academic, too preeningly intellectual, too all-round thinky. Sure. But only as much as other poems can be too runnily sentimental, too intellectually lazy and biddable. Surely some kind of middle ground is in order, then? I believe that this middle ground should have more space for ideas, for thinking and thought.

Not that I want to back that tired old binary THOUGHTS vs FEELINGS. In fact, I think poetry is an uncommon useful way of exploring the way that feel our thoughts, and how we think our feelings.  One of the central components of my upcoming online Thinking Studio in May will be investigating this exchange between conceptual and emotional states of mind.

We’ll also, more practically, be looking at the nuts and bolts of how this works in contemporary poetry. Poets like Amy Key (here, for example) and Rebecca Perry (say, here) are doing great work on pulling up the carpets on the way that cultural ideas of gender and femininity laces women’s emotional experience with shame, insecurity, the constant presence of violence or the threat of violence. Patriarchal concepts are, for these poets, felt, in the body. Emotion is structured by ideology, by ideas. Thought, in poetry, is felt.

And, conversely, what even is all the soppy love poetry in the world except a thinking out of feelings? (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? I don’t know, let me think about it for 130 syllables.) Poetry is, inescapably, made of language. Much though it might want to be, it can’t be made out of bodies, which is where feelings happen. Much though it might pretend to be, almost no good poetry is actually Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’. It’s crafted, considered, refined, distilled, reconsidered, tranquilly recollected, whatever. Feelings, in poetry, are thought.

So less, please, of the idea that ideas and thinking are best left to the philosophers, to the essayists, to the goddam novelists. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy and literature; by the end of the three years, having discovered John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, I’d been convinced that the most interesting philosophy was happening in poetry.

As well as the obvious stuff (moral and political philosophy, aesthetics and philosophy of art, philosophy of psychology) poetry, it turns out, excels at phenomenology: the study of consciousness and the structure of experience. What is the difference, phenomenology wants to know, between the colour red and the feeling of seeing the colour red. What does the feeling of seeing the colour red have in common with the feeling of being punched in the arm?

Poems have two advantages over everything else when it comes to doing phenomenology. The first is, as above, its tradition of refusing to separate thought from feeling. But the second is the way in which it has the progression of time built right into it. Poems, like music, rely on rhythm: they move through time. You know what else moves through time? HUMANS. Our experience is essentially sequential, temporal, and so it helps, in the task of accurately representing that experience, to be working in an essentially temporal medium. I’d like to suggest that poetry is by far the medium best equipped to get to grips with what it actually feels like to feel, to think, to experience the world. I’d like to, and I will: poetry is the best. Yah boo novelists. Do one, philosophers.

On my Thinking Studio, we’ll be exploring both of these things – the common ground between thinking and feeling, as well as the representation of thought in time – but also a kind of ‘music of ideas’ (to steal a phrase from I’ve-no-idea-where): the beauty that can arise from the arrangement of ideas; that purely abstract shapes and patternings can have beauty too. Just like Ashbery, correcting William Carlos Williams, allows ‘“No ideas but in things,” with the caveat that, for me, ideas are also things.’ Well then: ideas in ideas! Think of Wallace Stevens. Think of Gertrude Stein.

Of course, if we’re doing our job properly, even the oddest, most austere tangle of purely abstract ideas won’t be able to distance itself too far from the world of emotion: from how it feels to feel.


Explore how it feels to think – to hope, to notice, to change – and in so doing paint a vivid and familiar picture of how it feels to be human, on Joey Connolly’s Thinking Studio, a 3 week online poetry course from the Poetry School. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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