Have you ever
been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps
coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know
that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not
about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait.
Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale
scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses
in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your
godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read,
or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can
remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S.
Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The
names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance.
But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature,
which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly
juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or
simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a
badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a
woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all
women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such
as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy
and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then
you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my
friend, your life is over.
Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a
bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for
the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker)
reading us some of it to us (chortle)?" – unless, of course, you stumble across a
group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and
are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that
civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living
from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many
other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The
misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or
topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and
still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and
the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that
humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a
quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the
heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual
level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not
just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the
various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe
the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who
commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who
composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust
and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not
for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some
guiding light in the darkness.
Labels: decline of western civilization, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, nature poets, poetry, Psalms, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, war poets, writing poetry