In a world of digital everything, and yes here I am blogging on my laptop, the question that always comes up when discussing poetry, is what if any relevance does poetry have now that anything is fair game to be reduced to 140 characters or fewer? I would answer that poetry is more important than ever. When we relegate ourselves to text-speak, we nearly eliminate syntax, spelling, grammar and we obliterate complex thought and nuance.
A few years ago I wrote a poem in text-speak just to do it. Its dryness and clinical nature reminds me that I love words filled with the sounds and feelings that vowels produce. Being a person who has the ability for visual closure, my brain will fill in the vowels for understanding. However, minus the actual vowels, I lose something. Beauty. Look at this small stanza of Richard Wilbur's (from The House) written as it was intended and again in txt spk (apologies to Wilbur for the bastardization of his beautiful words):Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
Smtms, on wking, she wd cls her eys
Fr a lst lk at tht whte hse she knw
In slp alne, nd hld no ttle to,
nd hd nt ntred yt, fr all hr sghs.
Can you "read" the second version? Probably. You can get the likely "meaning" as well. But did you sense the beauty of the diction, the intricacy of one word played against another? Were you moved? Not likely.
While this is an extreme example, a rather silly one I might add, it underscores what I mean about language for its own beauty. Think of your favorite word. Say it (aloud or silently) and let its sounds take you, rolling them off your tongue and around the cavern of your throat. What do you FEEL?
My two favorite words are ocean and lullaby. I love the sounds of them, the way they fill my mouth, the way they encompass me with joy. Imagine now how these two words can work together to make something of a heightened joy through their complementary imagery. This short poem is an example of how they do this for me:
When I was a baby, rocked
to sleep by the waves, I had no word
for ocean, knew only the rise
and fall of its heartbeat, like the lullaby
heard below my mother's own
tidal days and nights. Lullabies are like that:
no beginning, no end to the soothing.
Tides too without alpha, omega,
just a repeating lullaby on the shore.
Now I am here at its lip, awash
in the music of the ocean,
lulled toward sleep
as if stilled from my cries
by an invisible mother.
Plain language to be sure, nothing fancy or hard to pronounce. It is the way the two plain words work together, spurred on to make a feeling and to paint a picture of that feeling.
Author David Biespiel writes, in his NY Times article about the importance of poetry, that:
Poetic utterance ritualizes how we come to knowledge. In the same way that poems illuminate our individual lives, poems also help us understand ourselves as a culture... Poetic utterance mythologizes our journey of being. Poetic utterance tells and interprets our stories.
I would add that human beings think in metaphor, which is a wonderful testament to complexity and interconnectedness which makes us sentient beings with souls.
Dana Gioia in his famously controversial essay, Can Poetry Matter, tells us that poetry is an essential human art. He tells us that to be fully human we need nuanced language and delicacy or rigor of diction. He says that we are separate from other animals in large part because of complexity of thought and language which is the life-blood of poetry.
Poets are sure that each word in a poem has its own value in that a word creates (in concert with other words) an inner and outer landscape. Each word is important not only in its connotation but also in its denotation. Words have power, intrinsic power to inflame, inspire, inculcate. When words get together in the way poets hear them, the power is great, almost magical. It is why poets are (generally) so careful about word choice, word order, word play.
Bespiel says: No matter what language we speak, we follow the guidance of poetry to better perceive sorrow and radiance, love and hatred, violence and wonder. No matter what continent we call home, we read poetry to restrict us in time and to aspire toward timelessness — whether we are in our most vibrant cities or in the remote woods.
Poetry is like a road map therefore, or a genealogical chart, connecting past to present and leading to the future. Poets hold a great responsibility in making certain that the path ahead is one of beauty, even in its darkest moist dangerous spots. Poets are responsible for holding up a mirror to history in order to tug at our present conscience. Poetry is a vehicle taking us from there to here. It can heal as well as (sometimes) wound. Even in its wounding, there is healing. If we care about ourselves, about our cultures, poetry will always matter because it is the best way to know who we are in the world.
Poetry is not in competition with other kind of written communication, not as some say a mere shorthand for prose. It is its own. When we read a poem, something entirely different happens than when we read the newspaper, a novel, a text. We are stirred to think beyond the naked words, even beyond the meaning of those words. We are stirred to a new vision of the world outside our windows, outside our relationship to that world. We are more deeply connected, even if we are alone.
Poetry matters because it is the art of the utterance a balance between the beautiful and the bizarre. Poetry matters. It is lullaby and explosion, daylight and darkness, truth within truth.
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