Is Poetry Necessary?
As a poet, I recognize poetry’s tremendous importance to a society. Still, I can get caught up in the complexities of modern life: I have classes to teach, papers to read and grade, writing projects demanding equal attention, a family to care for. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that poetry is as necessary to our well being as food, though when I say this to my students, they look at me skeptically.
Many have trouble with poetry, and I discuss this difficulty with them. “Why,” I ask, “in a class of twenty literate, intelligent young men and women do only two or three read or write poetry—even occasionally?”
They think about the question, and then a few raise their hands tentatively; they try to articulate why poetry is hard for them: “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life,” says a female business major from Hong Kong. “I can’t get it,” says a male psychology major from Philadelphia. “I feel silly saying I read poetry—people think you’re weird if you do,” admits another young woman from Los Angeles. “They’re too depressing—they always seem to be about sad things,” claims someone else.
I urge them to give poetry a chance, reminding them that poems are compressed use of language, so they work like instant food: you need to add water before eating it. With poetry, instead of water, you need to bring your full attention, intellect, imagination, and heart. If you do, the poem will open and reveal itself to you.
I also make a parallel between poetry and dreams, since I believe that both arise from a similar place in the psyche, the more archaic part of ourselves that isn’t available to us except through images and symbols. The psyche seems to be preverbal, though this statement makes it sound as if it can’t make use of language; a better way of putting it may be that thepsyche—what Carl Jung called the objective psyche—has existed since the beginning of time, and our individual psyches hook into it. Dreams, poetry, and other art forms communicate from this place, especially if they’re transformative, capable of lifting us out of our ordinary perceptions.
For people who have no relationship with their dreams, they often seem arcane, nonsensical, strange. But once you’ve become acquainted with how dreams work, you discover that they speak a special language, not unlike the language of poetry: You need to read between the lines, hear the “message” that the dream contains.
But message sounds too much as if both poems and dreams are didactic, intentional creations. A poet doesn’t start out with a message. Rather she has a feeling or image or idea she wants to explore, the poem being a place where she can make new connections between the world, memories, and language. Similarly, dreams take the flotsam of daily life, mix it with memory, desire, and potential new life, and create a coherent symbolic whole.
Yet to “get” a poem or dream, we need to enter it, walk around inside it, rather than examine it from the strong, sometimes harsh light of rational intellect. Of course we need to take our intellect with us, some aspect of it at least; but we descend into the dream or poem in order to “get it.” To understand either a dream or a poem, we need to develop a new faculty, a “third eye.”
The poet William Stafford has another way of saying this:
Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye…. It’s like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can’t see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there…. If you analyze it away, it’s gone. It would be like boiling a watch to find out what makes it tick. If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world—you are in the area of poetry. (William Stafford. Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1978, p. 3)
Teaching poetry reminds me that while we dream and write poetry in solitude, to fully engage a poem is a communal activity. (Similarly, to apprehend a dream, it helps to discuss it with someone—a friend, a therapist.) While I might sit down alone with a poem and enter into the poet’s world, with a group something magical happens. Connections I hadn’t thought of spring to life; observations that hadn’t occurred to me add a whole new dimension to the poem. (I’m reminded that something similar happens at a good poetry reading: Perhaps hearing the poem with other interested individuals triggers neurons in our brains that otherwise might not have been touched, not unlike what can happen in certain houses of worship.)
This occurred when I looked at one of Canadian poet Alden Nowlan’s poems with my class—”The Bull Moose.” In it he describes a moose that wanders out of a forest and ends up in a cow pasture. The moose’s presence attracts the farmer’s neighbors who treat it like a carnival attraction, something domesticated, though the cows that share the pasture have more sense: they back away and huddle at another end of the enclosure. In response, the game wardens have come with their rifles, and the
bull moose gathered his strength
like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns
so that even the wardens backed away as they raised
When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled
(Jack David and Robert Lecker, eds. Canadian Poetry, Volume Two. Toronto: General Publishing Co. Limited, 1982.p. 129.)
My students and I talked about more obvious ways of understanding this poem, the bull moose representing wild, instinctual life that becomes trapped in civilization and patronized: We think we can control and tame it. But the moment the animal shows its true nature and majesty, we react with fear and kill it.
I then suggested that we could also view the moose as symbolizing what we do to ourselves, how we try to contain and control our own noblest aspects. However, when we begin to show how truly powerful we are, we kill those parts. The game warden/censor in our psyche rushes in and shoots this powerful potential before it gets out of control. The moose also can represent poems themselves that we don’t allow into our lives because they can be as splendid and wild as this bull moose, as tame and as mysterious, as difficult to control and as frightening. But why frightening? Why on earth might a poem be frightening?
One student observed, “They’re too deep.” This response captures, I think, much of what we fear in poetry: It carries us past safe waters; there’s no lifeguard on duty; we can get in over our heads quickly, taken out to sea. We can discover new territories in ourselves—uncharted, savage, uninhabitable.
The poem that stimulated the response of “They’re too deep” is Michael Ondaatje’s “In Another Fashion.” In it he says
We must build new myths
to wind up the world, provoke new christs
with our beautiful women,
to claw carpets
majesty in a sway
with rings on ugly feet
to drink from clear bowls
to mate with our children
(David & Lecker, p. 250)
My students were having trouble understanding Ondaatje’s surreal images, so I asked them what might happen if we provoked new christs or had species mate across species. The one who had said “They’re too deep” frowned and shook her head in distaste at the idea of birds and children mating.
I suggested that they not take the writer literally but imagine what would happen, for example, if a bird mated with a human—especially a child before she’s fully formed and conditioned by society. What might such a merger produce? What strange children could this new creature have?
These questions unleashed a rush of answers: “We’d be able to fly, to see from a different perspective…. We’d hear differently, understand another species more intimately…. Our imaginations wouldn’t be earthbound…. We could be free of our usual restraints…. Our language would be altered.”
One thing Ondaatje helps us to see in his poetry and prose is that reality, what we perceive as rational, mapable everyday life (I’m thinking here of his book and the subsequent movie The English Patient), isn’t so predictable after all—or controllable. His surreal images and mythic references remind us that what we can see with our ordinary vision limits us; and it’s the poets who can deepen our perceptions. Poems help us to see and appreciate things in their variety and depth; they show the ways we’re blind and give insights into social conflicts and interpersonal relations. As Ezra Pound has said somewhere in his writings, “Poets are the antennas of the race.”
In his poem “King Kong Meets Wallace Stevens,” Ondaatje talks about the poet Stevens being
portly, benign, a white brush cut
striped tie. Businessman but
for the dark thick hands, the naked brain
the thought in him.
(David & Lecker, p. 256)
Stevens not only was a poet, he also was an executive at an insurance company, living in the world of commerce and the world of art. Because of his dual nature, we can view him as symbolic of humans who also live double lives—their outer and inner lives, though often the latter is neglected or unattended to. But Stevens also
is thinking chaos is thinking fences.
In his head—the seeds of fresh pain
the bellow of locked blood.
The hands drain from his jacket,
pose in the murderer’s shadow.
Hands that drain from the poet’s jacket are disconnected from the poet; they have their own reality. Anyone who has made art, whether poems or paintings or sculptures, can tell you how our hands have this separate life, quite apart from our conscious desires and instructions. Like King Kong running loose through New York, unaware of the destruction he leaves in his wake, so too can an artist’s hands contradict, reshape, amaze, and transform reality—our accustomed reality. The chaos that King Kong brings is necessary; to have a new vision we must destroy the old one first. As Margaret Atwood has shown in her poetry and prose, to connect with ourselves, we must first dive into ourselves. Poetry can show us the way.
“King Kong Meets Wallace Stevens” reminds me of something Gregory Orr says in Poet’s Speak:
…by expressing feelings and describing experience, a poem can make other people feel and thus break down two kinds of isolation: that isolation between two people and that deeper, more terrible isolation that cuts a person off from his own feeling self. (No publishing info on book)
This “feeling self” that we all possess can get lost. A poem—or poems—can help us find our way back to it. They can help heal the psychic split(s) most of us have.
By now my students are somewhat dazed. Nothing quiets or humbles them quite like poetry. They stare at their books and then at me, mouths open, eyes a bit glazed, trying to understand. I tell them not to worry so much about understanding: “You need to enter the poem, but also let the poem enter you, penetrate you, plant its seeds, carry you away on the wings of imagination. Let it touch deep chords that will reverberate long after you’ve finished reading the poem.”