In my youth, way back when in the misty nineteen fifties, there was a kid who lived down the block who scandalously sassed his single-parent mom. She would ask Jimmy to take out the garbage, or some such mundane and minor job, and Jimmy would respond, “Give me three good reasons why I should!” Mom would generally come up with one or two quick ones, off the top of the head, but stall, and Jimmy would sass, “Ha ha! I told you so!” And of course he refused to do anything at all.
I’m gonna try to top Jimmy here, and his mom too, and give you not three but five good reasons why you should read poetry. If I miss the mark, you can sass back, of course. (Leave a comment, any comment, below.)
Let me start by cribbing a simple article from the online magazine Odyssey, whose mission is “to affect positive social change by inviting people to share their perspectives, sharpen their opinions, and participate in meaningful conversations with others surrounding the topics they care about most.” Nothing wrong with that, is there?
In Odyssey, Madison Council suggests that poetry can do these things for you:
- Make you think.
- Make you feel.
- Give you a different perspective on common life events.
- Invite you to read a text over and over again.
- Induce you to write your own poems.
She doesn’t provide a whole lot of evidence for these claims, but let me take up where she leaves off, okay? (It’s curious that her article is positioned in the Entertainment section of the mag. Poetry can be entertaining, for sure, but it’s far more than that.)
Thinking. How does poetry make us think, and how is this thinking different from other kinds? Ms. Madison doesn’t supply examples, so let me start with one and see what you think. She starts her article with a quote by Robert Frost, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words,” so let me offer a few lines of a sonnet by Frost called “Into My Own,” the very first poem in his first book A Boy’s Will (1913). It’s about a very willful boy indeed who dreams of running away from home. The poem ends this way:
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
On its face (and Frost had a sly and perhaps even malicious face according to some observers and biographers), the poem suggests that the willful boy is right and everybody else wrong. He has been somehow, vaguely, abused. So he runs away, and it’s they who lose, not he: they who must search for him, must wonder if they’re still loved. It’s he, finally, in that last couplet, which snaps shut like a Venus fly-trap on its prey, who is sure in a godlike way, he the wet-behind-the-ears teen runaway!
How many of us have felt this seething resentment against injustice, however unjust or ill-informed our feelings themselves were? But how many of us have put this feeling, this idea, into words so elegant and double-faced as this? We see that Frost, the adult, is looking back at his young self and justifying him, while also keeping the esthetic and psychological distance that maturation requires. The narrator, in short, knows more than his character. His craft accommodates more than one simplistic point-of-view.
Feeling. Okay, and why not feeling? “Since feeling is first,” as e.e. cummings famously proclaimed, let’s go there, right to the start of the poem:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
lady i swear by all flowers.
A modernist and romantic, cummings would not stress formal matters like syntax (word order, or rhyme scheme, stanza structure, capitalization, punctuation), especially when he is in love. If you don’t abandon yourself to feeling, give way, lose yourself, you will never wholly know the bliss of love, will never lose the rational self that keeps you separate and apart. You will gibber a language like this love song. A modernist poet, you will nevertheless invert or pervert syntax: “wholly to be a fool / while Spring is in the world / my blood approves.”
Cummings was wildly popular in his day, perhaps, as poets.org says, because of “the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex.” His writing sent shock waves of recognition through his readers and admirers: yes, that’s what poetry is, something wild, and immediate, and emotional, and joyous, and me!
Different perspective. Louise Glück, who just won the Nobel Prize in literature, has said, “I dislike poems that feel too complete, the seal too tight; I dislike being herded into certainty.” If you’re looking, thus, for something unexpected, something inquiring and exploratory, consider Glück. She knows that completion, our usual sense of completion, may be laced with falseness, often that of nostalgia. So, in “The Past”:
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie —
Yes, sure, this is a nature poem, but nature is neither ennobling nor soothing nor pretty. Do you think a nature poet romps in nature, skips through the daffodils, counts clouds? Not Glück, whose poem ends thus:
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.
It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?
Over and over again. Again, an idea from my boyhood. I attended a Catholic high school in suburban Minneapolis, staffed by the Christian Brothers. It was Brother Mark, my junior year, who made each and every one of us boys, however eager or reluctant, memorize poems and step before the class to recite them. These poems included Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, however unlikely such a theme for lads of seventeen:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
You probably want to read this sonnet over and over again because its full force and meaning escape you at first reading. Its full force and fury. No, Louise Glück offers no conventional consolations in her poetry, but neither does Shakespeare 400 years earlier. There’s no God in this sonnet, no afterlife, no priestly unctions. The only meaning is the meaning that we as humans make: love is the gift we offer one another, even as the bonds of love, the bones of the human body, break or dissolve. It’s a humanist consolation: love conquering all, perhaps, or perhaps not. In fact, let’s say not, for now, as quoting other sources, whether Renaissance or other, deflects us from this particular gem, which, yes, we must read again.
You too can be a poet! I don’t want to give you ideas that may not be happy ideas. I mean, encourage you to do something you don’t want to do or, frankly, have no talent for. But human beings are creative creatures. We all make things (the word poet comes from “Greek poētēs ‘maker, author, poet,’ variant of poiētēs, from poein, poiein ‘to make, create, compose'”). We all tell stories, we all get ideas. If we compose ourselves and our gifts enough to make these stories or ideas memorable, then we too are poets and make poetry, defined in dictionary.com as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”
A more modern definition would shave some of the romantic emphasis cited here. Yes, poetry is rhythmical, as much as rap is rhythmical, but it doesn’t, these days, always contribute, nor should it, to pure pleasure, nor is it always “beautiful, imaginative, or elevated.” Read Shakespeare. Hear Louise Glück. Or Wallace Stevens, for that matter, another humanist or, some would say, nihilist. Writing from your own perspective, ephebe (a humorous Stevensian word, meaning beginner), can you do what he did in 1921 in “The Snow Man,” which ends with a reflection on
… the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
What do you think, finally? Are you convinced you should or might read or write poetry? Or you like to give me some sass back?