The Importance of Poetry

When I was a freshman in college I took my first poetry class, and my father started referring to me as “the poet,” like an epithet.  Even then I had no interest in being a poet — I had a passing interest in writing fiction, mostly as a hobby, and thought I’d minor in creative writing — but it was chemistry that interested me, visions of designing drugs to keep people healthy, researching the origins of life, using organics as fine tools for the first time in human history…  Writing was just a game, an outlet for excess creative energy, as important to my psychological well-being as a diary, maybe, but no more meaningful to the rest of the world than a stack of journals locked in someone’s dresser drawer.

Even as the excitement of the natural sciences evaporated into the tedium of lab work and the rote memorization of randomly assigned terms, it took a long time to allow myself to believe that writing could be important — that art could ever trump intellect, and that a life spent in pursuit of such ephemeral nonsense could be fulfilling.  That life seemed selfish; it was a waste the time and talent.  A poem never helped provide someone with clean drinking water, could never be used as a fuel to replace hydrocarbons or as a vaccine to cure disease.  As much as I preferred my English classes, it took a lot of soul-searching before I was able to accept that I did.

What the hell is the point?

Long before I even knew of Rattle, Alan grew tired of devoting space at the back of each issue for a list of publishing credits.  Maybe these kinds of bios made sense before Al Gore invented the internet (and he really kind of did) — but nowadays if you read a poem you love and want to find more of a poet’s work, all you have to do is Google.  So instead of 10 pages of wasted space, Alan began asking a simple question instead:  Why write poetry?

These contributor notes are a treasure-trove of solutions to my undergraduate conundrum.  What’s probably the most common answer, that writing is a compulsion — “I write because I must!” — doesn’t really help much, unless you have that compulsion, too.  And besides, compulsiveness is no excuse — when people are compelled to violence or addiction we try to cure them.  With so many people writing because they must, maybe we should just start a support group…

Others claim to write for immortality (“So my work will outlive me!”), to get laid, or to change the world — and it was this last one that I latched onto first.  This is still a world of full of suffering.  We have the technology to provide food, shelter, and clothing to every human alive, and yet we don’t.  We’re always at war, we’re always stealing and cheating and dehumanizing each other.  80% of the world is still ensnared in the myths of their ancestors, searching for a meaning to life that is outside of the only life they’ll ever have.

There were two quotes I kept coming back to.  I gave my copy of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my brother a couple years ago, so I have to paraphrase, but Robert Pirsig writes something like, “All over the world, scientists are working hard to extend our lives — but none of them bother to ask why.”  And then there’s Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Why is always more important to a consciousness than how, and I began to see science as the how and art as the why.  What value is there in living a longer life, if it’s lived poorly?  If I could dedicate a writing life to the ideals of collectivity and kindness, if I could help illuminate the interdependency of individuals and the moral power of self-created meaning, then I could do more good than the invention of a million pain killers.

It was that grand idea that allowed me to take poetry seriously, and cleared a path which led me here on a Friday afternoon, a stack of books on the editor’s desk to my left, still pondering the importance of poetry.

But over the last 5+ years of working in poetry full-time (and then some), I’ve gradually come to a new understanding:  Poems don’t do doodley-squat.

No matter how naive you want to think I’m being, no matter how hard you resist this fact, it remains a fact.  Everyone points to “Howl” as the most influential poem of the 20th century, talks about how it distilled the sentiment of an entire generation — but the ’60s would have happened without “Howl.”  The world will end not with a bang, but a wimper, and we didn’t really need Eliot to point that out.  Maybe a few of us are a bit more bold because of Frost, more persistent, but “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods…”  are more slogans than a poems.

Moreover, no one even reads poetry.  Rattle has thousands of subscribers, and only a handful of them don’t have at least a few poems in a folder on their computer that they’d like to have us publish.  Our favorite nemesis G. Tod Slone likes to mock lit mags as one big circle-jerk — and he’s right!  We’re only talking to each other here.  No one just reads poetry; we write it, too.  And writing it is mostly what we really care about.  So even if a poem could effect change, who is out there be effected?

If you want to change the world, don’t write a poem, write a chant and stage a protest (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).  Be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, build a house.  Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an animal clinic.  The value of any poem, or book of poems, or school of poets, is so overblown — by people like you and me and MFAs and AWPs — as to be delusional.

But that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t important.  Poems themselves are inconsequential, but poetry — as an activity, as a mindset — is central to all that is important.  The pursuit of poetry is the distillation of that critical Why – it’s what we live for, what can “make us bear any how.”

Poetry isn’t a career, or a passion, or a form of entertainment.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s an entire doctrineless philosophy that we reconfigure into each of those things.  To engage in poetry, whether reading or writing, is to practice an enriching attentiveness.  To practice poetry is to pluck detail from the surrounding world — to see things more clearly, to recognize beauty, to experience pain, to struggle to connect.  Because the writer uses the reader’s inner voice as a medium, poetry is fundamentally empathetic.  We see through another’s eyes, wear another’s shoes.  Poetry is cathartic.  And who needs a prayer or a trance — poetry has your daily meditation built right in.

The cliche is the tortured poet — the melodramatic outsider with half a head in the oven.  But what I see is a subset of society that’s more alive, that experiences life more fully.  Poets tend to have good marriages, raise bright kids, spend time thinking of and doing things for people other than themselves.  There are exceptions, of course, but I have direct contact with a huge number of poets, and I can say with confidence that we’re more happy and functional and productive than the whole.

And it’s not because some poem taught us how to act.  It’s not because we have any special talents, or more education, or better genes than everyone else.  It’s because our thoughtfulness has been turned on and tuned in.  A better life is simply a function of a more present awareness.

I’m not saying that poetry is the only way to be engaged — we can use science or sports or motorcycle maintenance to the same ends.  But poetry is a great way — maybe the best way — to get there, because it operates on so many levels of consciousness, and because language is so central to the structure of the mind itself.

So over the past few years, I’ve come to see the practice of poetry as a kind of barometer for the health of a society.  I’ve come to see Utopia as a world where everyone writes poetry — I think that in such a world we’d be done with racism and sexism and classism, selfishness and greed.  There would be no torture or war.  How could you torture someone empathetically?  How could you fight with someone whose experiences you’ve shared?

And so I’ve also come to see it as my mission, and a worthy mission, to get as many people writing poetry as possible.  That’s why I encourage everyone to keep writing and submitting, and never tell them to wait three months or close a reading period.  It’s not that the publication matters, but that the lifestyle matters, that there’s an expanding community of poets out there doing what we do and sharing with each other this life-enhancing, collective of concentration.

To me, what you write is inconsequential, or just the frosting on the cake.  Just write it.  That’s the cake.

9 thoughts on “The Importance of Poetry

  1. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on this, but I’m not going to write too much because it will probably be deleted. But, I have to say this statement is really dumb: “How could you fight with someone whose experiences you shared?” I guess that’s why brothers never fight, or married people, or neighbors, or co-workers, or friends.

    To me, poetry is not about creating a perfect world, or even a better world. There is no such thing. Poetry is about feeling as alive as we can this very moment.

  2. Mather, as long as you don’t make what Slone likes to call ad hominem attacks, then you’re free to post your opinion.

    I don’t think most people share each others experiences at all, whether brothers or spouses or coworkers. Few people think about anything other than themselves, you can see it everywhere you go.

    Feeling alive in the moment is exactly what I’ve been talking about. That’s what poets do, and I think that the more people there are doing that, the better people we become. You’re a good example of that yourself — your poem this winter is full of empathy and sincerity.

  3. Pingback: Twitter & the History of Poetic Utility | Timothy Green

  4. Great post! I was really enlightened. I myself don’t really understand it completely even after reading this but I love how you described it as ‘fundamentally empathetic’ and about ‘struggling to connect’.

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