On the Necessity of Poetry in the World

In Pinnacles National Park on the High Peaks Trail

Unlike the Irish, who embrace and celebrate their poets, or the Japanese with their several centuries long history of haiku, we Americans embrace the rational, the utilitarian and too often jot our observations down in reductionist, artless lines….I know that is not always true, but face it, we scoff at poetry, unless it is dressed in the postures of hip-hop or pop culture, ambient lyrics vying for our attention in the ‘battle’ to attract customers.  Poets take as a given the mystery and beauty of life.  They do not shy away from the sharp edges and risks.  Like visual artists, whose eyes cause them to see the world in a multiplicity of ways, poets describe a mutable, ineffable world, that is different from moment to moment, whose ‘boundaries’ shift and transform that which they appear to contain…as if the world were an experiment in the shifting perspective of quantum physics….Poets ‘paint’ with swaths and scrawls of letters across the page, measured and rhythmic, a code, an illumination, a pathway they’ve scribed across a page, from heart to heart across the beating Earth.  We Americans crave solidity, a stable world where being and life are fixed and knowable…we leave the rest for God and the egg-heads as if these things don’t really matter to us…as they are beyond our ken and responsibility.  The world of the poet raises too many questions for us and questions can undermine the investment we’ve put into our fixed world image upon which we’ve staked our lives.  Americans are blindered gamblers and most of us have placed our bets on the same outcome.

I do read poetry…even attempt to write it sometimes.  I read science and history, politics and about the social ways of my fellows.  I garden and often agonize over what is ‘wrong’ in this world…what we can do to heal it.  Poetry teaches us that connection is often not found in a straight line.  Solution is not found in the old ways of thinking, ways that can only lead us down this path we seem to be fatally connected to.  Poetry is opening and inclusive, it speaks to what we share, what we stand to lose.  To read it requires something different of us, that we exercise and strengthen long neglected muscles, muscles that once moved us through our childhood worlds of wonder and awe.  The adult world has largely banished this, stripped life of wonder, and with it, the value integral to the heart of all things.  We scoff at those who speak of this, call them childish and dismiss them….This is what we’ve lost and the world so desperately needs today. 

Poetry is not just the sing-song rhyming that so many limit it to and so dismiss.  It is more than the hopelessly romantic pledges of youth to love.  It is the active, yearning, binding, connecting power of language, the antidote to politics, the rediscovery of wonder and life and the artful rescue of ourselves and each other, a conjuring, a magical illumination, a resuscitation via language, so much greater than the simple sum of its grammatical parts.  Poetry is the hard work of discovery and understanding, a mystical journey if you will, that seeks to awaken us.  It celebrates a ‘rebirthing’ of individuals, drawing us back from our often frantic perambulations into the world, providing a magical and changeable ‘key’, a lens and a code with which we can more truly see.  It prepares the ground for an awakening, and facilitates our maturation and, and by doing such, is absolutely essential for us to claim if we are to reach our next stage.  Poetry speaks to the world that comes next, its unfolding from this one and charts out a path, many paths, that we may choose, it sets guide posts and stacks up cairns for us to watch for, shows us more clearly the choices that lay before us within its tone, pace and choices.  It may be our most thought-filled speech, rich with meaning

Poetry embraces the inherent ambiguity of language, the idea that a word is an abstraction, that represents some thing or idea, not the thing itself.  It does not attempt to use it as a singular and precise signifier, it embraces the otherness of what we seek to understand and communicate, dressing that thing, that life, that experience, in the words that can bring us closer to what it is…because whatever it is that we are trying to say, is more than the words themselves.  Speech, the words we routinely share with one another, would seem to be simple and direct.  We hunger for this kind of precision, for this kind of directness and simplicity, and are regularly disappointed at their failure, and our failure, misunderstanding, being mislead.  We insist in our brevity on the ‘rightness’ of what we say, when nothing is so simple.  Our relationships suffer because of this, the world suffers too from our fallible certainty.  Poetry takes a less direct route to understanding…it recognizes and embraces the shortcomings of language and perception, the difficulty of understanding itself and our need for it.  The problems of life are not those of mathematics and engineering, they are not rendered solved by binding contracts, ultimately, not even political, they are poetical and first we must understand this before we can ask of politicians, mathematicians and engineers what we must do.

Language we see as uniquely human…but communication preceded us by several billion years and will continue on far into the future.  It is a quantum process.  In nature, in life, everything is linked through quantum entanglement, intimate and direct, instantaneous, life ‘speaking’ wordlessly to other life, coordinating, making all things possible, connection and consequence complete within the cell, within the tissue, the organism and its community.  Perfect! without the errors and arrogance of words, the separateness of speech…its delay.  Such communication is perfect, not subject to interpretation.  Language is our own contrivance, born out of desire and mistrust, part of our capacity to be active participants, individuals, hungry for belonging and understanding, by our separateness, anxious with our ability to effect the future, to make choices that go beyond our own existence.  Language enables calculation and thought and requires at least a veneer of trust, that it transmits what is essential, that its use can lead to a single shared truth of this world, that there is a fixity and universality to this world and a bond between speakers.  Communication is an act of faith and simultaneously, an instrument of deception, providing the speaker with power over, if they are clever enough, attaching claims not in evidence, calculated sleights of ‘tongue’ intended to deceive, to gain advantage, more about what one wants rather than what we might deserve.  Poetry understands this about the world and the ‘nature’ of language.  It accepts the lie seeing it for what it is and makes alternate plans to reduce its blow.  Poetry provides clarity to a shifting universe and teaches us the value of what is real and of its rarity in the world of words.  It is honest in its intent to deceive the reader, the listener, but it does not do it for the poets own gain, it seeks instead to share the beauty and ugliness of being, stripping away the sharp edged fictions which we carry through this life that diminish.  Poetry is the way of the ‘romantic’, the person who sees what is and could be, and recognizes the destructiveness of one view, one interpretation…questioning the ‘is-ness’ of one solid, correct world view, the trap of utility.  If we are to survive this time then we must embrace the poetical and follow the creative breath of life.  Life has never followed a set path…to do that is literally, a dead end.  Each of our lives will most certainly end with our deaths, while it is the echo of our lives lived, their beauty and bodaciousness, that will continue on to help determine a livable future…and what is poetry if not this, the beautiful record of life writ large.

To win in this life, to gain knowledge, is to surrender.  In surrendering is the dissolution of the barriers that we’ve placed in our own way, actively embracing our lives, choosing the real over ‘shoulds’ and must be’s.  It is in fact the rejection of these and of the judgements of others for this, an act of choice, the courageous act of compassionate acceptance, a commitment to one’s own life, a life that is complexly linked and bound to all others.  There is no other real choice than that of the poet.  The others all end…badly.  Arguably the rules and conventions of society are ‘training wheels’ meant to protect us, to help us along our way until we are strong enough and sure enough to ride on our own.  If I’m being my more cynical self, I see them as instruments of control, either way, keeping them on impedes us, inhibits our actions through their distortion of our relationship with the world, preventing us from the many consequences of life’s several gravities, all going untested, giving us a ‘surety’ that is not there, rendering us blind to all of the others we share our lives with, upon whom we depend.  If we are to progress, then we must decide to remove them, take the teetering challenge of the unknown…breaking the taboo in a world predetermined and planned, bound by rules that recognize no other option.  Our world is shaped by fear, our fear of loss, not so much of our own lives, though that too, but of trading them too cheaply, what’s it worth in dollars when all other values have been abandoned?  What would be added if we counted love, beauty, wonder and awe, the inherent value of life and its complex web of connections?  Which world, which life do we want?  Which one is correct?  Which is ‘correct’ depends upon the world one wishes to see, which life we ‘expect’ for ourselves and those we share it with.

Poetry ’empowers’ the writer and reader giving them the ability to assign ‘value’ to their world through their own description and perception.  A society that embraces poetry accepts this broader valuation of the world and would question those who attempt to limit and confine it, who would blindly consume it.  In our world today value is assigned almost exclusively by the economy.  We have traded away this immense power and responsibility, leaving us a limited, bleak world reduced to its essential utility…right this moment, and paints us all as competitors, or enemies, who would take what is questionably ‘ours’ from us and possess it for themselves.  Today, in this world, any other value an individual might attempt to confer on something or someone, is minimized, transitory, going unrecognized by the larger society and its courts.  Poetry recognizes the beauty and value of all things, imparting it through an alternative ‘lens’.  A ‘lens’ which I’ve described above as universal, that describes qualities that are inherent to all things, inseparable from them.  Poetry strips the sole power of valuation away from the economy and those who control it, by expanding both the definition of value and in recognizing each of us in our ability to discern such value.  Poetry, contrary to the literalists, the fundamentalists and the unbound capitalists, levels the playing field, raising it, recognizing the inherent value of all things, allowing us to make more sustainable and informed decisions to assure our own as well as the futures of others.  It is inevitable that we would choose poorly in a world reduced to base utility and it would seem obvious that if we lived in a world that recognized a broader understanding of value that we would make better choices for ourselves and all others.  We are after all inseparable.

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