Auld Lang Syne

Friday, August 19, 2011

Shed Light, Write

Life is hard right now, perhaps harder over a wider scope than at any time in history. People are out of work, out of options, out of patience. One bookstore owner on deciding to close her store 3 years ago said about reading: "times are tough' reading is a luxury." It is no surprise to this writer that her store was closing. Now Borders is going out of business, leading many to question whether reading in the traditional way is passé. I think rather that Borders is suffering the fate of the "too big, too impersonal" wave sweeping the country, a wave of for profit only motives, a wave of the bottom line being worshipped over the line of people outside. Reading is what we are still doing, in record numbers. My favorite second-hand shop is busy every day, and books are being bought & exchanged there, or being borrowed from libraries. No matter that eBooks are flourishing as the nouveau-techno trend of the day, people are still READING. What seems to be selling best is nonfiction and Romance and the latest hottest tell-all by politicians with NO skills at writing (you ghost writers out there take heart, your niche may be "in" enough to carve our a bit of a career now). What of poetry? you ask. Not co-opting Dana Gioia's original question TOO much: Can Poetry Matter? I want to consider the question again, a question that could use a bit of discussion now as poets struggle to get into print, to get known, to get their messages out there for consideration. It's true that poetry could be simply swept away as any leaf fallen from a tree. It could lie on the front mat lifeless and forgotten. It somehow seems to many rather "artsy" and has a reputation for being on the fringe of or completely out of touch with contemporary readers and publishing. However, I insist that poetry is perhaps never more important in modern times than it is right now.

In the days when communication was not accomplished with a pair of opposable thumbs on a tiny keyboard, messages and information reaching its intended in a matter of seconds, poets were engaged (yes, I mean PAID or otherwise materially supported) to roam the streets or to sit at court and inform, explain, analyze current events. Poets were generally considered both politician and polis itself, making sense of the confusing, the contrary, the controversial. Societies depended upon their poets to be the centre of most anything of import. Poets were revered and listened to in light of decisions and direction. Then we got "practical" and poetry fell into the realm of the over-educated, the elite, and it became something only high society or academia continued to embrace. It slid into the back rooms and smoky coffee houses as "subversive protest" and over the top fringe activity during the 60s. Free verse replaced (in large part) formalism and even then, it could not compete with dime novels and sleazy shock literature. We wanted to know about Hannibal Lector's bizarre killing habits, not read 32 rhymed couplets on the American experience.

For those of us who find the structure and passion of poetry compelling, it was grim news. We could count on mild amusement to outright recoil at the mere mention of what we write. Say to someone that you are a writer and there is great interest in your work, UNTIL you mention that your genre is poetry. You are seen as the kook in the room, the person without REAL work or worth, as a hobbyist whose work ought to be given away or bartered for a few copies of the journal that is charitable enough to publish one or two of your poems. You sigh and think about writing a novel, something that might give you more relevance in social situations. You don't WANT to write a novel, but you do think about it.

We poets may get discouraged, but we have to keep on writing. We have to keep on tackling the tough issues in verse. We have to keep on finding new and fresh ways to make losses and heartbreak into sympathetic experiences. We have to keep pointing out the injustices of society in ways that connect with the universal. Why, you ask, oh why? Why not just give in and be a "real writer," with a novel every other year in the drawer waiting for discovery.

The answer is simple really: this crazy world needs dissecting and resurrecting. We need poets to do this hard work.

In this overblown, overfed, overhyped world we need poets to again step up and make sense of the frenzy. We need structured passion, a jaded but engaged eye on the landscape of our lives. When there is war (have you read the papers? it's been on the news) we need poets to celebrate the gory glory and decry its very existence and morality. When oil gushes forth unchecked by man;s best and worst efforts, we need poets to step into the gap and bemoan. When all seems helpless, hopeless, hapless we need poets' humor to distract, if just momentarily. We need the limerick, the sonnet, the aubade. We need the ballade, the rondelle, the haiku and ghazal. We need poets working into the night to wag their collective fingers (ink-stained as they may appear if only figuratively). We desperately need to read poems that say "we are all in this together and damn the obstructionists in Washington" and we need to read poems that keep us from killing ourselves and others.

So be it. I am a poet. I don't want to be anyone else. It's in my DNA. My ancestor, William Dunbar was a poet of the Court of St James. He criticized (and held accountable in ironic tones) royalty and its foolish ways. He described the society of his day in verse that made sense of it all. I proudly carry his blood and his bravado. I would not change that.

Keep on poets, don't stop showing the world to itself in all its glorious warts and wobbles. Keep the notebooks filled and the ink flowing. Try to keep your heart healthy and your blood pressure just short of blowing. We need you alive and engaged. Above all else, write. Write every day. Don't worry about money or honors. Just write and send out your work. You never know who will read it and be changed.

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