In Defense of Poetry
It’s inevitable in a small-talk-kind-of-setting: you’ve just met someone on an airplane, or at a party, or at church, and they ask, “What do you do?” If I were honest when faced with this question I would answer, “I’m a mom” because that is how I spend the majority of my week, but that can be a conversation ender.
“I'm a writer,” I say instead. “Ohhhh,” the new acquaintance murmurs. At this point, their interest is piqued. “Wow, what kind of writing do you do?” I suspect they are really hoping I write YA novels, or perhaps a sassy blog.
“I’m a poet.”
Now, again, if I were a more straightforward person, I would also explain to my acquaintance, “Well, poets don’t actually make money, so I guess that’s not what I do, but that’s what I identify most with. I supplement my income with teaching and freelance writing.” But, like I mentioned, that brand of honesty makes for boring conversation, as does rambling (there’s a proverb about that somewhere), so instead I just wait for their response.
Their body usually shifts and then they make some reference to a slam poem they heard once (I’m definitely not a slam artist). Either that or they confess, with a certain amount of reticence that they don’t know anything about poetry.
My new acquaintance has nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s the thing: most people don’t know a lot about poetry. Poetry’s cultural currency is fairly low these days. It isn’t widely taught in schools anymore, and it just doesn’t seem to be as appealing--or perhaps doesn’t offer the same access points--as a news article, blog post, or novel. In grad school I was told that only poets read poetry. It was a warning to us studying to be poets, “Get a J-O-B starry eyed kids--people are more interested in easy reading or in checking their Instagram than your confessional verses.”
I would argue that there doesn’t need to be this dichotomy between Instagrammers (by Instagrammers I mean pretty much everybody under 55) and poetry readers. Poetry should have a solid place in the zeitgeist, most especially among the Snapchat set. I believe now, more than ever, is poetry’s time to shine. Here’s why.
Poetry is condensed.
We are used to everything being summarized for us. Whether it’s from social media or clickbait articles, we want our information to contain imagery and we want it to make us feel something and we want it fast. Poetry satisfies all of these impulses. Good poetry is dense with imagery, maybe not images like a filtered iPhone photo of the moon reflecting on water, but imagery like a rich description of a moon on the water. Consider this verse from Pablo Neruda:
Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.
Many poets, like Neruda, are masters at the art of condensing a story. They have the magical ability to either unfurl a tiny moment into a huge experience, or boil down a huge experience into a tiny moment. Lorine Neidecker, a mid-century poet, called her craft “the condensery.” (As an aside, and speaking of Instagrammers/things that appeal to hipsters, here is a video of Bill Murray reading that Neidecker poem.)
Poetry is quick.
Neidecker is a great example of a poet that you could read quickly but also return to over and over again to receive deeper meaning. A lot of her poems could be read in the same amount of time as an Instagram caption. Wilderness, one of my all-time favorites, is a great example of something that is very spare but very vivid:
You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going
You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm
the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe
Poetry like this lends itself to fast reading. It packs a swift punch. While I would recommend reading poems within the context of a book, it isn’t always necessary. Poems can be enjoyed one short piece at a time. There are even free apps available that make it easy to look at a poem while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, or at the DMV. (Actually, who am I kidding? You could read an entire volume of poetry at the DMV).
Poetry is experiential.
Some of the more popular social media accounts--Kardashians and celebs notwithstanding--document adventures and new experiences. Beautiful foodscapes, thick forests, tropical beaches, couples in love: these are all scenes and photos bound to receive a gazillion likes. We are, more than ever, interested in visceral moments, and poetry captures these for us. Writing or reading it can pull on all of our senses--it can remind us what it’s like to be alive, to feel something deep, to notice beauty.
Poetry is easy.
Okay, no it’s not. That’s a lie. To be fair I’ve already told you I’m not always as honest as I should be; however, poetry is not as inaccessible as it seems. There isn’t necessarily a “right or wrong” way into it; it can be approached from a lot of different angles. If you allow a poem to be understood in more than one way, the intimidation factor will wear off. You can read a poem artistically, intuitively, musically, academically, critically. Poetry is more difficult than most of what you’ll read on Instagram, I’ll give you that. But you can choose how you want to receive a poem. You can just allow the beauty of it wash over you, or you can really dig into the meaning and context of a piece.
Poetry is beautiful.
That is my final half-lie. To clarify: poetry is mostly beautiful. Some of it is weird, some of it is dark, some of it is intentionally un-beautiful. Some of it is really, really bad (hint: the worst kind of poetry contains the most cliches and is the most expected--but that’s enough of that, I’ve already told you that you can make up your own mind about this stuff). I think we all have a high school journal that proves just how bad poetry can be. Almost all poetry though, is raw, is trying to tell a truth, is reaching for something. And that in itself is beautiful.
Lately, I’ve been camping out in poetry that feels hopeful. Again, I’ve declared my lack of interest in poetry that sounds like a recycled Hallmark card. Just to be clear, something like this--
Standing on the edge of the rest of our lifetime
Hold tight for this
Let’s jump into the sun’s light together
--that is a motivational poster, that is not poetry.
But poetry that both catches my breath with its ingenuity and pulls me away from the vacuous cynicism that lurks on every corner of social media is what I’m drawn to these days.
At the beginning of her poem, The Poem Speaks to Danger, Maggie Smith quotes another (excellent!) poet, C.D. Wright, “Beautiful things fill every vacancy.” I think that’s true if we allow it. The rest of Maggie Smith’s poem is an example, to me, of a beautiful thing. It’s filling:
I am a buzzard sky, late
fall, the smell of kerosene.
The flicker of a deer’s white
tail in the tree bones.
I am grass rusting.
In the lake, you are a fist
around a ponytail, the hum
of nearly stopped breathing.
A plane wrinkling a sheet
of night air. The belief
that everything ripe,
everything that will ever
ripen, has been picked.
Impossible. I am the mouth
that can hold more. I am
the moon watching the girls
swim, the night sky pucker
in the jet’s pull. Softening,
flushed, I am a cheek.
Peachskin. The globe
of some new, ready fruit.
That is the power of poetry. It has the ability reach into the chasm of my deepest emotions (I promise that’s not a bad poem in itself) and wake up what’s possible. It highlights all of the best living experiences, outside of devices, outside of the rush of our time. Swimming by moonlight, the puckering night sky, peachskin. Poetry makes me zero dollars, it’s true. But man, does it make me feel alive. Man, could it make us all feel alive.