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Does Poetry Matter? Does Writing?

Updated: Apr 15

Before I write anything on the matter, let me just state that I am a Romanticist. I believe art can change the world. Yes, there is the argument that art is not accessible to everyone, which I will get into in this blog post, but art does not need to be snobbish to be regarded art. In fact, can we not say that our bodies, the very existence of the Earth in a Universe vastly filled with dark space, are not vehicles of art? We attribute our greatest physical achievements to the humankind's race to power as the superior species, but this has dehumanized us. We now fear the act of feeling and don’t allow ourselves to feel as deeply as we should. Art encourages us to feel and think beyond our immediate sphere and encourages us to communicate with one another. Poetry, particularly, elicits emotions like no other.

So does poetry matter?

A possible deterrent to reading poetry is the task of critiquing a poem, which is a responsibility the reader places upon themselves when the reader needs only to experience it. That is not to say that we should not critique a poem, but you do not need to critique a piece to have an opinion about it. We can choose to contemplate the author’s intent and why the words on the page are structured/ordered the way that they are. This will be appreciated, however, part of publishing is to write for an audience. If we consider each other, the writer and reader, well, I think that is a successful dialogue.

Once we are considering each other, we become free of a particular strain. The writer has read other works, has familiarized themselves with the discourse of poetry, has observed the current events of their surroundings, and has evaluated their passions — what do they wish to write about? The research has been done and the writer is free to write. The reader can now enjoy the piece, for someone will see this creation put forth into the world, and want to take it home…or on their adventures.

Of course, this is only if the art is genuine. Poetry (and all writing) is an investment. Proper time and attention must be given to the creation process. You may not know all the tricks of the craft when you begin your writing journey, but the journey is a perpetual one of discovery, learning, and growth. Readers will be able to tell when something has been produced merely for consumption, can spot disingenuous from miles away, and shelve the work among many others.

If we think of poetry, and all writing, as a layered form of speaking that invites new perspectives and experiences we wouldn’t normally encounter in our daily lives, isn’t that more welcoming? I will say, however, that our communication with one another, including through written form, has significantly deteriorated to a state of mush. There is mass but no structure. Superficial “interactions” are tried from a desire to stay relevant or to maintain courtesy.

I have a theory that we are disillusioned with writing, particularly poetry, for the same reason we may be disillusioned with other forms of art and even politics. Carl Jung’s theory of wholeness describes the human’s intrinsic longing to bridge the conscious and unconscious. As people move through life, they are aware something is missing. Black spots smudge the memory reels of our lives, repressed feelings and hidden traumas stored in our gut may eventually manifest as sadness or pain. Sigmund Freud extensively studied the stages of infancy where the baby, having evolved from a fetus, must now come to terms with the fact that it is separate from its mother and all surrounding objects. The infant will come to understand its reflection in the mirror and will eventually learn that they are not the center of the Universe. But in our current society, the innate yearning for wholeness has become the collective jerk mechanism to separate. We have exchanged nature for nurture. We are tempted to disengage and move on. That is why we feel lonely and hopeless.

Poetry is now more accessible than it has ever been so why does it feel useless at times?

Everyone has access to self-publishing in print or online, trends determine bestsellers, and the cries of slam poetry can be found in venues throughout cities. Schools everywhere have Creative Writing programs, Journalism programs, and Communications programs. I was previously a Creative Writing afterschool teacher and will be again at one point in time or another.

Poetry, in its newfound (is it really newfound?) inclusivity, has developed several coteries. Poetry is no longer exclusive to academia and the pastime of intellectuals, though there are still people who undergo years of study, workshops, and programs to be more serious writers. Poetry has now expanded into communities through storytelling, or rather, society has begun to pay more attention to storytelling. That is an amazing thing! Yet, we share these stories hoping they will know how to survive on their own once outside our minds. But there is no discourse to keep the poem afloat in the long term.

We have forgotten to consider the reader, that is, the human on the other side. I don’t think we are listening to each other or I believe there would be entire movements dedicated to peace, dedicated to healing.

We might think, what might my writing do? There are enough poets and writers in the world.

I’m not sure what quantifies as “enough,” but I do know that there would be more action inspired by poetry if more people thought like this. The poet can be defined as a tragic figure because they are fettered to their minds, writing in solitude and whatever else the old stereotype may be. That we are mad, perhaps, which is not a terrible thing to be given the condition of the world. The poet can be defined as a tragic figure because there is a gap wide enough for doubt between what we want to inspire through transcendental means and the limitations of our words, the limitations of this physical plane and time. 

Ben Lerner, in his book The Hatred of Poetry, retells the story of Caedmon, a cowherd who does not know how to read or write but becomes the first English poet we know of. He is visited by God or a demon or an angel (it is left ambiguous) and prompted to sing “the beginning of created things.” Caedmon opens his mouth and sings beautiful verses praising God, but when he wakes and tries to sing those same verses, they are not as beautiful, having lost some of their essence through the translation between dream and wake. Lerner writes,

Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g., the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.

The other argument, if poetry is in the world of dream which Lerner seems to imply, is whether or not poetry contributes to society in any impactful way. People may ask, Why not get a “real job” then? Well, then I ask, who or what is given the power to define “real”?

It appears to me that emotions are not real anymore, empathy is not real anymore, and kindness is not real. These ideals have been subverted by logic to a cynical degree, self-preservation, and the fear of being taken advantage of. Doctors cure us of illness, lawyers defend the alleged, legislators write the laws, etc. Teachers, the ones in charge of educating our youth, are underappreciated, farmers are underserved, communities are neglected, and we are stripped of our humanity altogether. The whole system feels like a plate of scrambled eggs gone to mold.

I know people who make a living from their writing, who are paid to read their poetry on a stage, and in front of a mic for many to hear. I know self-published authors who live from their books and their blogs. The same is true of entrepreneurs of all kinds: writers, painters, ceramists, graphic designers, videographers, and so forth. So, our conversation returns to the divide between the patrons of a traditional consumerist society and the "starving artists” who no longer have to starve.

I can’t help but think of Lew Welch and “Chicago Poem.” The poem critiques the well-oiled machine of industrialization and the way it has severed humanity from our environment, damning nature and our right to a peaceful, quiet home. I think of the last stanza the most.

Years later, in 1971, after much hardship and alcohol abuse, Welch took his shotgun and his backpack and walked into the Sierra Nevada wilderness. He was never seen again and his body was never found.

How utterly alone he must have felt! He had friends and family who loved him, but he must have felt so alone in what he was trying to do with the words he was compelled to write. (You can read more about him and his life here.)

Why didn't more people engage in the conversation "Chicago Poem" started? We have Welch's recordings, where he reads and comments on his own work, and we have his poems, but we lost the poet himself. It seems we have forgotten that it was the man who walked into the woods, not the poem. It seems we have forgotten to consider the writer on the other side, that is the human.

And if we didn’t have the time then to let the weight of art sink in then, what time do we have now?

Poetry can bring together communities, albeit slowly, but it hasn't aside from those coteries I mentioned earlier. I think that may be why it’s hated by many. Poetry is not immediate like a bomb nor as loud as a protest; it is gradual and does not demand to be read. Reading is not immediate either for such a text; one can read a scientific fact and immediately learns something, but for poetry, there is more time needed to digest it and see how it is applicable in our lives. Once we find how poetry is applicable, however, it will change us.

There are poems that are really lovely, poems to curl up next to with a cup of tea, poems that still time, poems that capture memories, and poems that remind us that we have the option to live. There are terrible poems that instill in us fear, written by massacred people, sharing stories of war. I hope we become aware of these projections of voice reaching out to be heard and hope we can become better listeners. I hope we see the phantom hands grasping to hold others.

I think that's why I love poetry so much, aside from its challenge to think or act. Poetry forces us to admit our compassion, or lack thereof. Will we fight for and stand beside something we care about if it's not screaming in our faces? Will we remember the people on the other side?


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