Some teacher, sometime along the way, likely soured you on poetry. It was done by making you read stiff poems, written in an alien parlance with old-fashioned metaphors, and then insisting you explain what it meant. Those wiggly word things seemed bent on bucking the rules, and so they were placed in a straitjacket where students could squeeze them some more.
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, in “Introduction to Poetry,” begins his invitation to students: “…take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…” and “…walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch…” In other words, an invitation to play inside the poem and discover what lives there. “…But all they want to do,” he complains, “is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” With that teacher of yours in mind, he ends the poem, “They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”*
For a lot of people, the ability to appreciate poetry lives on the other side of unlearning their unfortunate introduction to the art. Thankfully, it seems to be happening. The National Endowment for the Arts reports poetry readership up sharply between 2012 and 2017, to twenty-eight million adults. Among the generations, the 18-24-year old crowd reads poetry most avidly.
It is an odd thing to write about, I realize, but there is almost no difference in numbers between the rural and urban consumption of poetry. Also, those with and without college degrees are increasingly reading poetry. Maybe we can build some bridges there?
The poet, Mary Oliver, who died recently, wrote accessible verses revealing the presence of common beauty in the ordinary that many of us pass by on our way to something else. She was a modern-day psalmist giving voice to stillness and the holy living in close proximity to us. “My work is loving the world…” she wrote in her poem, “Messenger.”
“…Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters…”
What matters, to someone writing poetry about anything, “…is standing still and learning to be
Poetry is lens. All of us have been fitted with an economic lens as a primary prescription, the one that monetizes and commoditizes everything from healing to education. Religion is a lens, science is a lens, and so too the military. All of them prescriptions that refract the people and events around us. Poetry can be a filter too, one that slips under the other prescriptions allowing us to see with new eyes.
If we are to survive the ravages of climate change we have wrought upon the earth and ourselves, it will not be from technology and laws alone. We need lenses that open us to see beauty and delicacy, the elegance of natural relationships, wonder and awe. The content of poetry is endless – it can be bloody violence as easily as it can be ghostly and spiritual. But it is a practice of seeing in rich detail and texture the world around us, while voicing even the most spectacular and abundant with a sparseness that opens the mind.
*Source: “The Apple that Astonished Paris” (University of Arkansas Press, 1996)
**Source: “Thirst” (Beacon Press, 1992)