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Further examining the importance of poetry

The Poet Laureate's Corner
The Poet Laureate's Corner - -File photo

Voices of poets needed now more than ever

I have been raising the question of what is poetry’s value in our world whose counted- on stable environment, structures and guiding principles have been collapsing before our eyes for a long time.

Faced with extinctions, a speed-up of life that creates mental illnesses, nations realigning themselves and within nations the breakdown into tribal or religious factions, and the radical debasement of language, much that we took for granted is disappearing. In this maelstrom, what can poetry offer?

Dr. Robert Lapp’s lyrical response was on the verge of breaking into poetry itself with its metaphorical proofs. Janice Melanson pointed to the common belief that poets are in touch with deeper streams of feeling and understanding giving them prophetic voices. Geordie Miller proposed that poetry pre-eminently demonstrates the limits of rational thinking and that its “doing” is of a different kind. Ed Lemond made the claim that poetry is always “making new”.

I could fill several columns with the words of other poets as they have striven to describe the often elusive creative process of poetry, its preciousness and, I dare say, necessity, but I will be content with offering only a few.

I was most struck on rereading Percy Shelley’s famous “A Defense of Poetry” (1821) to find these lines. “It (poetry) creates for us a being within our being . . . It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

What is this being that poetry causes to inhabit us? I think it is an empathetic impulse allowing us, urging us, to live beyond our skin, to walk in the footsteps of the other. Furthermore, great poetry refuses the separation and alienation that result from race, class, gender divisions, any difference really. There is something we can count on– a common humanity – that shares history, the sensual, evolution, mystery, archetypes, beauty, death. And no matter the muck we have made, there is something fundamentally marvelous about our being on this earth. Do we not desperately need this affirmation today!

Salvatore Quasimodo is saying much the same as Shelley when he wrote: “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own.” Rumi puts it this way: “Poetry can be dangerous, especially beautiful poetry, because it gives the illusion of having had the experience without actually going through it.”

Meena Alexander, a poet I intend soon to discover, answers why poetry is thought to be dangerous: “Precisely this: the force of the quicksilver self that poetry sets free—desire that can never be bound by laws and legislations. This is the force of the human, the spirit level of our lives.”

“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” I love this quote from Gustave Flaubert, because, as I tell students, poetry is more than love found and lost, flowers and springtime. So we look at paper clips, what light does to surfaces, and find analogies for hard-to-express feelings. Similes, metaphors, figures of speech are ways of exploring the world as surely as hypothesis or deduction, induction. This is why, as T.S. Eliot says, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Communication happens when Emily Dickinson feels “. . . physically as if the top of my head were taken off . . .”

Every great simile or metaphor is an invention, a way of seeing that did not exist before. That power is a value in and of itself.

The following three quotations point to another quintessential value of poetry:

Lucile Clifton believes that “. . . poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, “Ahhh.” That was the first poem.”

“Poetry is a language in which man explores his own amazement.” – Christopher Fry.

And from Wallace Stevens, “The poet is the priest of the invisible.”

Answers to the awesome questions of who we are, from whence we came and where headed are as much the province of poetry as of science. Perhaps, and here I grant my own bias, poetry has an even greater claim because it cannot omit the human psyche which science often does.

When Leonardo daVinci remarks, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history”, I nod my head, because history too often is written by those with the power to control and limit the interpretation of events, whereas poetry may pierce surface cause and effect to subterranean essence.

I turn again to Meena Alexander and conclude with these words from her 2013 address to the Yale Political Union. “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history . . . In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist. I believe this very deeply, and I see it as an effort to enter into the complications of the moment, even if they are violent; but through that, in some measure, poetry’s task is to reconcile us to the world—not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense, to return us in love, the province of the imagination, to the scope of our mortal lives.”

More than ever, we need the voices of poets if for no other reason than these:

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Rita Dove

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads.” Marianne Moore

“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Robert Frost

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” Carl Sandburg

Marilyn Lerch is an area resident and Sackville’s poet laureate.

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