Have you ever been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait. Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read, or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S. Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance. But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature, which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my friend, your life is over.
Exaggeration? Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker) reading us some of it to us (chortle)?” – unless, of course, you stumble across a group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
Before the twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some guiding light in the darkness.