This is a repost from a blog post I did for my favourite literary journal ~ Nimrod. Nimrod is updating its web. presence, and I could think of no better topic than poetry, and its continued importance in our lives. So here you are, Why Poetry Matters:
Years ago—more than 25, actually—the poet Dana Gioia asked if poetry can matter. Here at Nimrod, which for more than 40 years has published amazing poetry, from poets who continue to stun us with beauty, we know it does. And it should.
Poetry—all art, really—connects us. Offers us the experiences of someone outside us to consider, other experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Both reading and writing poetry help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another. When we read poetry, we’re invited into another landscape, a kind of liminal space between us and the writer. And when we write poetry? We’re actually creating that landscape ourselves. Each effort—while very different—requires imagination and empathy, so necessary for lives well-lived.
If I go too long without poetry, it’s not like I die. It’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with . . . vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is always useful—not simply pretty, or even literary. But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins. Take Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles .” There’s a line (lifted from Ezra Pound) that changed me—“When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.” Let me explain:
Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, and physical “muscles” are rusted tight. I can’t think like I used to be able to. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit . . . unnerving, to say the least.
The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel . . . well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel. But Snyder reminds me that even a discarded axe handle is useful. Is necessary: When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off. Snyder elaborates, bringing in Pound, who wrote the line, translated from the Chinese of another poet, Shih-hsiang Chen.
I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, whom I studied so closely, imprinting on him like a poetic duckling, and his Chinese translations. Once, at a Nimrod reading the Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin gave in Tulsa, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly I was physically connected to my flawed idol, whose work is still so influential to poets, through the man in front of me. I was the latest tiny dot in a line curling back to China. Sitting in the faculty study, I was connected to these writers by lines of poetry. That matters.
The poet Denise Levertov once said that In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Because poetry is about calling something—a feeling, a thought, an action—into being. Invoking it, really. Poets are the ultimate magicians. Lines on a page become a kind of prayer or spell, as axe handles become safe passage through aging’s dark journey.
Recently, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write with too much structure. That writing is—for me—a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.
Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realized that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me). I write poetry most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form. Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune—each draws forth the content to fill the form’s structure. They act like scaffolding for the creative process.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit inchoate feelings/images/thoughts within a skeletal framework, it’s a kind of magic—following the breath to calm. Letting the poem help me find its voice.
I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being taught, being what the next axe handle comes from. Of being held within the breath pauses that define the poem’s structure, and becoming part of the poem’s music.
In other words? Poetry still matters. When its raison d’être is to connect, to bring ideas into being. How could it NOT?
My baby sister is going to grad school. And like I did, she is swimming happily in a new ocean of knowledge. Her field requires a LOT of reading, none of it ‘light.’ She’s also taking American Sign Language as her required language, which in some ways (although it’s a secondary subject, not her primary focus at all) is even harder.
When I went through grad school, I realised there are several kinds of learning. Two, however, remain big epiphanies to me. One is the expected: you learn a LOT of new stuff. Diane is reading a lot of fiction, most of which is new to her. So did I. Not many folks read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography for fun. Not to mention Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations… Those were part of my ‘new stuff.’ Diane’s are less outré: Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, others.
And it’s GREAT for book addicts to have new books to read! You learn histories, cultures, beautiful language. It’s FUN! And, eventually, it changes you. More on that later ~
The second kind of learning is one you don’t expect. At least I didn’t. It’s the sudden intake of breath, and a complete shift in how you see the world. I don’t know of a name for this kind of learning: it’s not really experiential — I’m not out doing something that triggers it. In my sister’s case, it’s the ASL that’s been a catalyst for a revision of Diane’s concept of language. And unless you’re familiar w/ the verrry different way ASL for native speakers works, compared to spoken language for the non-deaf, this may be hard for me to articulate.
Years ago, during my jounalism days, I did an interview w/ the Gallaudet University acting troupe. We talked, with the assistance of a non-deaf interpreter, about ASL, about speaking it as a native speaker. Since I grew up speaking a 2nd language (well, from the age of 8, still within my window of linguistic learning), I get the idea of true fluency. I used to be verrry good at French. But I was never a native speaker, even though I have (still) an excellent accent. Even though I sometimes — even these decades later — find a French word or phrase more appropriate than its English translation.
The conversation centered on how ASL — or other systems of deaf language — differed from ‘speaking’ language. It was my first introduction to the idea of linguistics: how languages can be utterly different, and how that informs our entire world. It led to me reading everything by Oliver Sacks I could get my hands on, beginning with his wonderful ‘Seeing Voices,” on his studies of deaf history, culture, and the 1988 uprising at Gallaudet. Nothing in my phsical world changed as a result of that interview, or reading Sacks. But I changed — and in ways that would echo across decades, leading me into an exploration of linguistics at a graduate level.
Yesterday I watched a newly fledged downy woodpecker try to figure out the ‘logic’ of our feeding stations. She was looking for not only information — What kind of seed is this? What kinds of birds are eating here? — but also where ‘her’ station was. Not a small seed eater, she bypassed the millet feeder w/out stopping. At the busy sunflower feeder, however, she flew to the pole supporting the feeder and clung, trying to see if this was where she should be. Eventually, she tried the feeder station where the suet block and the seed cylinde are, clinging to the cylinder to peck off nuts and seeds. Nothing changed in the little woodpecker’s world, and yet everything did, because she did: she now understands that there are different feeders, and they offer different choices. Her world has order & meaning now.
Knowledge is like this, I think. It’s the reconnoitering — reading the books, casing the feeder stations — that leads us to these epiphanies. What my elder son & I used to call ‘baby enlightenments.’ You can understand that the air on the earth has always been here, turned to rain and then back to air from ocean, lake, & river. But it’s learning about Buddhism, about breath, that led me to put my knowledge of air with my understanding of the biological processes of breathing, and come up w/ the baby enlightenment: each of us has breathed this air forever. Each of us — all of us, every THING of us — is still here, in the air that is the web that connects. The silty erosion of the rocks from the very earliest beginnings, the gases given off by rotting dinosaurs. The sneezes of the tubercular Keats, the calm last breaths of the monk burning himself to death in protest of war. It’s all in the air, literally.
This kind of learning doesn’t happen daily, of course. It can’t be predicted or planned. It only happens to me, at least, when I’m caught up trying to learn or do something ‘else,’ something other than reframing my vision of the world. When I’m gardening, thinking about how earthworms are non-native species, as are honey bees. And what that means, and how it led me to raise native bees instead (I can buy honey…). Nothing outside changes, and yet the way I see it metamorphoses into something new,
So much of who we are is what we’ve learned. When I watch my grown-up baby sister expanding her intellectual horizons, she whose own children are adults, I marvel at the infinite landscapes each of us contains. And I wonder what other epiphanies will emerge from her flashes of insight about language. I know they will. It’s just part of who we humans are.