Why Poetry – Now More Than Ever?
It’s National Poetry Month…for a few more days anyway! For poets like me, it’s always national poetry month…week, day…year! I always think about poetry and how it fits into my life, how I hope it fits into yours, dear readers. The truth is that it took me quite a long time to write this piece. Starting on one day, writing some more on another, and still finishing on another. Such is the life of a parent…who is also a poet! Time is certainly a part of the life of poetry…but more on that later.
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I’ve so much to say, and the beauty of this perfect, blue-sky, bird-song afternoon gives me courage to say it…
I go to my books…to the poets who came before me, who write alongside me (both literally and figuratively) for inspiration and clarity, in an attempt to write this essay (let’s call it) on poetry. Why poetry – now more than ever?
Forgive the jumble-ness of the writing. My brain is firing off reasons faster than my fingers can connect to the keys, and the reasons may not always blend…but they are here in me, alive and scraping under my skin to get out.
- I have two children under the age of 10. Not once in the seven years of schooling has a note come home inviting parents for a night of ‘art and literature’. Indeed, each year there is some Math-related core value that is supposed to ‘guide’ the learning. As well, each year there is some Math/technology-related parent ‘social’ where we are invited to come and learn how to ‘start a Twitter account’ or ‘play fun Math games on the iPad’. I’ve no disrespect for Math or technology. I’m a social media player, I use a laptop to write on, I burn my eyes on Facebook just like the rest of us…but there is a problem with an education system that doesn’t treat the ‘arts’ as importantly/equally as the Math/Science. My Feminist nature wants equality not just for humans, but for the subjects we learn in school.
- I know the children are learning to read, that they learn about poetry (my daughter is learning how to write haikus), that they are, in fact, being taught language arts and music and art…but it’s not ‘held’ in the hands and heads of the ‘system’ as I believe it should be. Therefore, we focus on the arts at home, in the activities we do as a family. There are always piles of books on the tables and the floors in our home. I want our children to see and feel that art is as important to the human condition – to what it means to be a whole human – as any math problem or science experiment. I believe that all the forms of art – and I know it can be argued that Math and Science are artistic (I’m not arguing against that by any means) – should strive to work together to solve problems – personally and on a world-wide scale – in order for humanity to evolve and not repeat the mistakes it has already made. For me, poetry is the mode of art that I use to stay connected to my ‘self’ and to the ‘world’ – and my role as a parent who is a poet shows my children that poetry is a ‘voice’ and/or a ‘way’ in which one can solve problems, make an impact on other human beings, and embrace math, science…and any other subject one can weave into a poem (not to mention all the mathematically challenging types/forms of poetry that exist). (Ex. Alice Major, poet, writes a book on this point exactly in ‘Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science‘ (University of Alberta Press). Ex. Elena Johnson, poet, wrote a collection of poetry whilst at an ecology research station in the Yukon – ‘Field Notes For The Alpine Tundra‘, Gaspereau Press). Poetry forces the brain to work in ways that connect to all the parts of the body, to all the parts of being human.
From ‘Transcription of Organ Music’ by Allan Ginsberg (Howl and Other Poems, City Lights Books, ©1956/59)
…My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they
haven’t disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use–my words piled up, my texts, my manuscripts, my loves.
I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out to the garden crying…
- I only started reading Ginsberg in my mid-thirties. Like ‘Howl’ and so many other poetry books in my life, they ‘arrive’ in my hands at the perfect times. They co-exist in my life like air – on my tables like food – and I go to them for guidance like a priest or a pastor or a the smell of Spring on an April morning. Ginsberg teaches me how to write simply – paying attention to what is around me and why. How I affect what’s around me – and how I feel about it. He ‘saw the feeling in the heart of things’ – I understand this completely. It is the way of seeing for poets (and artists alike). Ginsberg teaches me how to be political in poetry too…an ability I am still honing…Poetry does this to a person. Reaches into a person’s soul because that is where poetry resides. Poetry latches onto thought(s) like a disease – causing dis-ease or ease or some type of reaction. This is the point of poetry – whether it’s about a flower or a country or a rape or a wedding.
‘Come, And Be My Baby’
By Maya Angelou, (From Poems, Bantam Books, ©1986)
The highway is full of big cars
going nowhere fast
And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn
Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail
And you sit wondering
where you’re going to turn
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.
Some prophets say the world is gonna end
But others say we’ve got a week or two
The paper is full of every kind of blooming
And you sit wondering
What you’re gonna do.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.
- Maya Angelou’s poetry and prose has affected souls across the globe. She has read poetry at presidential inaugurations. Angelou is proof that poetry matters on a world-scale. Her work is accessible. Honest. Rooted in her ‘self’ and her history. Also, humanity’s history. Stylistically, she shows us how repetition and rhyme can make a poem move. She shows us how paying attention to what happens around us can move us to love. Love plays a starring role in her work. I know this is why I love it so! My point here is that poetry communicates love – in all its forms, abilities, disabilities, feelings, emotions – and makes what is essentially intangible – completely, and utterly tangible. You’ve only to write a poem…or a love song…or paint out your broken heart to know that love is the language of the soul. Poetry knows this. Poetry lives this.
From ‘Poem for a Birthday’
By Sylvia Plath (From The Colossus, faber and faber, ©1967)
…I am all mouth.
October’s the month for storage….
…O the beauty of usage!
The orange pumpkins have no eyes.
These halls are full of women who think they are
This is a dull school.
I am a root, a stone, an owl pellet,
Without dreams of any sort.
Mother, you are the one mouth
I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness
Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.
I said: I must remember this, being small.
There were such enormous flowers,
Purple and red mouths, utterly lovely.
The hoops of blackberry stems made me cry.
Now they light me up like an electric bulb.
For weeks I can remember nothing at all.
- Poetry shows us pain. Suffering. Teaches us that even as it lives to give freedom to inner thoughts that are so very beautiful, sometimes words are not enough. Words on a page, in a book, from a wounded soul – not even poetry can keep a soul that believes it’s black to see the light. How many artists have given us beauty but could not see it in themselves? Even those whose art it is to make us laugh…cannot find the laughter to keep breathing. I think of Plath…I think of Williams (Robin)…I think of Hoffman, Houston, Thompson, Winehouse…Poetry teaches us about death. It offers language in which to revel in it…and language in which to help make us heal. For we can return to the poems, the lyrics, the voices, the faces, the ‘work’ of these souls whose gift was to give it all until there was nothing…and to choose it with dignity – in their hearts, I believe…with dignity.
By Hafiz (From The Gift, Penguin Compass, ©1999)
A mime stands upon a gallows
For a crime he did not do.
When given a last chance to speak,
He remains true to his art.
A crowd of hundreds has gathered
To see his last performance,
Knowing he will not talk.
The mime takes from the sky
The circles of bright spheres,
Lays them on a table,
Expressing deep love
For the companionship and guidance
They have given him for so many years.
He brings the seas before our eyes,
Somehow a golden fin appears, splashes.
Look, dear ones, there is turquoise rain.
He removes his heart from his body and seems to
Arouse all life on this splendid earth
With such a sacred tenderness,
There for an extraordinary moment,
It looked like someone was giving birth
To the Christ again.
He mounts his soul upon the body of Freedom.
The great breeze comes by.
The sun and moon join hands,
They bow so gracefully
That for a moment, for a moment
Everyone knows that God is real,
So the tongue fell out
Of the mouth of this world
- Ah, Hafiz. Hafiz shows us how poetry is spirituality. How it is the mirror, born to reflect on reflections – using metaphor and faith – to speak to the spirit of the soul. The poet holds a mirror to life, to humanity, and dares to write the reflections she sees. Dares to have an opinion, rooted in whatever motivates the words (fear, joy, faith, love, hate, etc.) that must spill onto the page. Each of us believes in something that enables us to accept the ‘alien’ nature of who ‘we’ are. At some point, the poet feels his humanity and writes it out in order to understand it…or accept that there is no way to understand it. Poetry can start wars, and it can also stop wars. Poetry gives the ‘mime’ – those soldiers who stand for all – a space to exist and gather power. To empower. At the core of every human movement with a motivation for positive change – you will find poetry.
From ‘Blind Justice’ (originally appeared in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land, Justice and Life Together)
… I am a witness
I am inspired by the earth’s response to her
A tsunami cleanses the earth
a hurricane rearranges rivers
an earthquake is an objection
and we will all have to face ourselves
face our sense of justice
to include all life
We will need to nourish our imagination
to include a new equality
and summon our souls, our hearts and our minds to a
which includes all life
- Poetry is for community. It is a space for writing the justices and the injustices of the land, the space, the company in which we inhabit and experience life. In the last year, I’ve read over 100 books of poetry (I’ve never read this much poetry in my life…and it’s changed me), and I can tell you with complete confidence that in every book the themes of community and belonging, identity and justice, family and love have played major roles. Poetry is for writing our history and finding lessons within it. Poetry writes wrongs – and offers them to readers on a witness platter. Poetry doesn’t have to ask a lot of you, but many times it does. Often, the reader becomes a witness as well. The words, the images, the stories, and the meanings stick to us like a new skin. Perhaps poetry is the skin we can all relate to, it’s the skin that represents us all.
- Poetry brings us together – literally. We gather in pubs, bars, basements, churches, restaurants, at waterfronts, on streets – to hear poets read. To see poets read. To experience the life of poetry off the page and in the mouths of poets. We have festivals dedicated to poetry. We have competitions dedicated to poetry – where presentation and impact weave together like rhymes in sonnets. We love poetry so much it gets a whole month to celebrate! Since ancient times, poets have been an integral part of humanity’s storytelling and philosophical core. Poetry and poets have stood the tests of time. They’ve stood and paid attention and written about it.
By Dr. Seuss (Random House, ©1975)
Oh, the THINKS
You can think up
If only you try!
If you try,
You can think up
a GUFF going by.
And you don’t have to stop.
You can think about SCHLOPP.
Schlopp. Schlopp. Beautiful schlopp.
with a cherry on top.
From ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’
By Shel Silverstein (HaperCollins Publishers, ©1974)
A piece of sky
Broke and fell
Through the crack in the ceiling
Right into my soup,
I really must state
That I usually hate
Lentil soup, but I ate
(A bit like plaster),
But so delicious, goodness sake–
I could have eaten a lentil-soup lake.
It’s amazing the difference
A bit of sky can make.
- I got to Seuss and Silverstein often to rejuvenate my imagination. They are masters of play and wit and lessons and laughter. They make up words, which I totally love! Poetry is for harnessing that fountain of youth we call ‘imagination’. I love this about poetry. That even in its most playful forms, we are taught to think differently, to be brave with our sounds, with our stories, with our imagination. Poetry is for playing! And helping people learn and laugh and love.
From ‘The Prophet’
by Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet, Alfred K. Knopf, ©1923)
And an astronomer said, Master, what of Time?
And he answered:
You would measure time the measureless
and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even
direct the course of your spirit according to
hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon
whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s
And knows that yesterday is but today’s
memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates
in you is still dwelling within the
bounds of that first moment which scattered
the stars into space.
Who among you does not feel that his
power to love is boundless?
And yet who does not feel that very love,
though boundless, encompassed within the
centre of his being, and moving not from
love thought to love thought, nor from
love deeds to love deeds?
And is not time even as love is, undivided
But if in your thought you must measure
time into seasons, let each season encircle
all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance
and the future with longing.
- I was gifted The Prophet when I was fifteen years old. Since that day, I have known poetry was flowing in my bones like the waters in Algonquin flowed beneath me – barely through puberty, terrified and fearless, searching for love in everything as I sat in the back of the canoe and paddled – Gibran’s words put my soul on fire and it has not gone out since…Sure it has weakened. For poetry also teaches rejection and competition. It teaches a negative self-talk so wicked and real that, I believe, each poet has, at least once in her life, wanted to give up her ability to write. Wanted to give up her voice. Poetry teaches that your thoughts are not new. Your beliefs are not uncommon. You pain has been felt before. Poetry makes poets never want to write again. And that is a stunning paradox. When I read Gibran, I think, wow – he says it all and he says it so perfectly. What more can I offer? Me, in this body, in this skin, in this time, with these beliefs? And Time goes by. I cry. I swear. I bow my head and curse the words…and Time heals the wounds and poetry is my band-aid. I can’t not write. In the end, for me, poetry is my yesterday, my today and my tomorrow. Poets write the flowing of the streams. Poets write what they see and know and feel for each reader to see and know and feel.
It’s 2016. Just looking at the number on my screen makes something in me squeamish. How can this far in, there still be war, rape, famine, hate crimes, drinking and driving, guns, disease? After all the poetry that’s been written to tell us, to guide us, to change us…how can so much pain and suffering still be happening?
It’s 2016. And I can share this essay on a ‘web’ that stretches the earth. People can travel to Mars in space. Cars can drive themselves. People can make food from strands of DNA. We know what DNA is and can do! Sometimes there are two rainbows arching in the sky at once. People kiss on the street. People build houses for each other. Give. Give. Give. Unconditionally. There is more good in this world than anything else. And that’s what poetry holds up for us.
Now, more than ever, we need to write and read poetry. To share this ‘time’ – and all the amazing and horrible things that fill it up. We need to witness and share. We need to vocalize and organize. We are recognizing the power of art. The power of words. We read each other’s poetry and feel more alive. We feel love more than we ever have before – even if it is in response to the pain.
It’s National Poetry Month, and the theme of this month’s celebration is The Road. Maybe each of the points in this piece are stops along my road of ‘Why Poetry?’. Maybe this road is…too optimistic…too naïve. Too juvenile. Maybe it’s a road you’re on too. Maybe it’s a road you can’t even see. I urge you to look for it, if that’s the case. Seek out poetry, if it doesn’t come barreling toward you. Seek out the poets, they are among us in growing numbers, in growing strength.
Buy a book a poetry as a gift. To a friend. To a lover. To your self. I promise you, it will affect your soul. I promise you, it will strengthen your ability to love.
Why poetry? Because poetry is art, education, politics, heart, love, spirituality, transformation, faith, fun, identity, community, imagination, rejuvenation, playfulness, witness, reflection, time… it is the road we are all on together.
Put poetry in your palm. Carry it in your bag. Leave it on your bathroom sink. Magnetize it to your fridge. Poetry is accessibility – to everything that it is to be human.
Now, more than ever, we need poetry.
- We need poetry so we can slow down. I’ve been writing this piece in my mind for months, anticipating that I would write it out for National Poetry Month. It has taken me the whole month to write it, to edit it, to revise it, to have the guts to finish it and post it on my blog, and other social media outlets. I know it’s long. I know it will take time to read it all. And that’s okay. You don’t have to read it all at once. You can take your time. Take a look at time…through poetry. I feel the pull of time passing me in almost every moment…but when I read poetry…when I look at art…when I read a book…when I’m walking in nature with my family and friends…time feels You know that feeling, I know you do. That’s what poetry pulls out of us. That feeling of connection, patience, belonging….yearning. It pulls out anger and hope. It pulls out grief and healing. It makes us jelly-belly laugh! It makes us ugly-face cry. It makes us us.
And we need to constantly look at who we are and how we communicate. We need to look at what we do and how we do it. And we need to take the time to reflect, before we react. We need to take the time to think before we tweet or post or, essentially, judge. Poetry, its very nature and process and reason, encapsulates all of this – looking in.
I wish I could list all the books of poetry I read…or all the books of poetry I love…but I can’t. I urge you to get out in your communities and find the poets. You don’t have to look hard for us. (We’re all wearing turtlenecks. I’m kidding. I’m kidding.) I urge you to go to the bookstores (in person or on-line) and find the books of poetry that are waiting to be held, read and loved…and shared.
The world needs more poetry, I always say. And I always say I’m happy to oblige. But as equally, the world needs more people to read poetry too. So be that person. Be those people.
To the poets, I say thank you. To the readers, I say thank you. I’ll see you on a stage…or on the page.