I have commonly heard people proclaim that poetry is an act of self-expression, and that makes sense to me. But I have also heard it claimed that the act of self-expression by itself justifies the writing of poetry; and that makes no sense to me at all. Self-expression, it seems to me, is a form of communication; and communication assumes the existence—and value—of an audience. Therefore the value in self-expression lies in the connection between an individual and their audience (though I can grant that the audience might be one’s own self, if one’s purpose is to clarify a thought or feeling in order to develop greater understanding). Any attempt to locate the value in the act itself strikes me as a virulent narcissism—not simply an individual’s delight in hearing their own speech, but a perverse insistence that other people hear [and value] that speech. Well, for my part I don’t expect anybody to value my speech unless I have something good to say; and some of my self-expressions may be good, while others actually harmful (and still others entirely negligible). I say for my part: perhaps every self-expression of some poets are indeed worthy of an audience; but certainly not every one of mine.
So, early on in developing my craft as a writer, I chose to reject the self-expression school (as I understood it—or perhaps misunderstood it), and impose a form of self-censorship—but “censorship” has such a negative connotation: let us instead say “quality control.” After some consideration, including reviewing what I had already written (and rejecting some of it), I determined that I would write for the following purposes:
1. to affirm truth
2. to celebrate goodness and beauty
3. to spur people on toward love and good deeds
Interestingly enough, I found that this set of purposes actually made me write more poetry rather than less (on a side note, a separate choice to write in formal meter as opposed to free verse also resulted in me writing more rather than less). I find writing for an audience, and for a glory, to be much more motivating than writing for the purpose of expressing (or unburdening) myself.
So it is with me; it may be different for other writers. But I share this on the assumption that I am not entirely alien to the human race: there may in fact be another writer out their similar enough to me in motivations and yearnings that this might resonate with. If you happen to be such a one, a writer or poet (or an aspiring writer or poet) with some vision of glory for your art, and unsatisfied with the prevailing theory of the glorious Self and the majesty of self-expression—maybe this can be an encouragement to you to identify your own vision for your art. And as for the myriads of people who are not much like me at all, disregard this as you like—or take what challenge you want from it.
But if what has been written so far interests you, you can read more here.