One of my great loves is poetry. As a child, I was exposed to it in school, but it wasn’t until I was 12 that the purpose of it became clear. I bought my first “real” book of poetry at a garage sale for a dime. It was a tattered paperback of Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems 1956 – 1968. I curled up in the bath reading it long after the water got cold. I remember being struck by the way a poet could say so much with so few words; And how, in the real world, a man could say so much about how he felt. I discovered that what he said, I felt. Or at least some of it. His words opened me up to a new way of thinking about words and my place in the world. I was hooked! After that, I began to write and to devour everything I could get my hands on. I scoured the library bookshelves for poets that spoke to me. I walked home with armloads of books. Poetry became a steady diet for me. I eventually majored in English, and yes, I took every poetry class that was offered. I continued to write and even had some things published, but that was not as satisfying as the community I felt when I was in a group of poets reading their work sharing their narrative with the musicality of language. I am still an avid poetry reader, and I still write too. But I am not as prolific as I was when I was younger. Time.
Recently, I have been reading , Can Poetry Matter by Dana Gioia. It is a book filled with essays he has written on how the reception of poetry has changed in American culture over the last several decades. In it, he outlines the movement of poetry away from the common man and into the universities. He poses that poetry is now being judged by new academic criteria, and its intended audience is now a group of university professors whose whole intent is to publish. He asks, “But why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of American poetry? What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society? In a better world, poetry would need no justification beyond the sheer splendor of its own existence.” He goes on to explain, “But the rest of society has mostly forgotten the value of poetry. … How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand and appriciate, that poetry still matters?”
He has two arguments for this. The first is, “Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. The second reason why the situation of poetry matters to all intellectuals is that poetry is not alone among the arts in its marginal position. If the audience for poetry has declined into a subculture of specialists, so too have the audiences for most contemporary art forms, from series drama to jazz. The unprecedented fragmentation of American high culture during the past half century has left most arts in isolation from one another, as well as, from the general audience.”
From a Pagan Humanist perspective, I would like to suggest that we need poetry to connect with our humanness. By humanness, I mean the more personal space we experience internally rather than the overarching culture I see as humanity. We crave words that speak to our hearts. Human beings have a desire for the musicality of the language and the community it brings. It helps us decipher the ritual of our lives and it can help enlighten us, build empathy and a deeper connection with each other. If we write, it gives us an outlet for what we need to express. Like any art, it brings us into the depths of ourselves. In my next blog, I will make some suggestions of things I have read that have put me in touch with why poetry matters.