29 May, 1956
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
I remember promising to send you in writing an account of what I conceive to be the purpose of my poetry, though I think I was possibly over-confident when I did so. Such explanations usually read very heavily. However, put it this way: I have no ideas on what poetry is, in the abstract, but I have sometimes asked myself in the past what exactly I am doing when I write a poem. Most people say that the purpose of poetry is communication: that sounds as if one could be contented simply by telling somebody whatever it is one has noticed, felt or perceived. I feel it is a kind of permanent communication better called preservation, since one’s deepest impulse in writing (or, I must admit, painting or composing) is to my mind not “I must tell everybody about that” (ie. Responsibility to other people) but “I must stop that from being forgotten if I can” (ie. Responsibility towards subject). When writing a poem I am trying to construct a verbal device or machine which will, upon reading, render up the emotion I originally experienced to as many people as possible for as long as possible. You’ll remember I called it a slot machine into which the reader inserts the penny of his attention. Of course, the process of preservation does imply communication, since that is the only way an experience can be preserved . . .the distinction between communication and preservation is one of motive, and I think the latter word gives a very proper emphasis to the language-as–preserver rather than language-as-communication. In other words it makes it sound harder, which it is! I forget if you asked me whether I thought poetry important: I’m afraid my opinion on it would be about as valuable as that of a beaver upon dams. It’s certainly important to me, but I doubt if the world would miss it much. All the same, I can’t imagine how people exist without practicing some form of art...
From The Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 2009