The Purposes of Poetry:
To find a way of putting what can’t be said
To startle us into seeing
To train words to dance
To rescue worthy words from slow death
To reassert the power of whim
To combat mind erosion
To make us feel what we think
And vice versa
To resuscitate the media-impaired
To remind us that truth is round with holes and corners
To notice to what will never happen just that way again
To make us consider how our light is spent
Or that the world is too much with us
Or petals on a wet black bough
I’ve spoken to various groups on the question, “Why read a poem at a time like this?” It’s a valuable question, and deserves an answer. It became a compelling question for me some years ago when a hapless economics student found herself in my advanced poetry course not by choice but by what seemed an unfortunate conjunction of graduation requirements and scheduling constraints. She appeared in my office a few weeks after the course began and after some hesitation, shuffled her feet and said politely, “I don’t want to be impertinent, but why do people do this?” “Do what?” I asked, moved by habit to insist on specifics. “Um, you know, sit around and analyze poetry.”
It wasn’t an impertinent question. It wasn’t dismissive. She really wanted to know, and so I really wanted to tell her. Whatever I said in the ensuing half hour is lost to history, though it apparently provided enough encouragement for her to remain in the course. But the question has stayed with me for years, and addressing it has continued to seem a matter of some urgency though ways of addressing it shift and change as new occasions for poetry present themselves.
The reasons to read a poem at a time like this are not obvious. The problems we face at every level — environmental, political, social, and spiritual, local and global — are daunting in their complexity and scale. The need for qualified scientists, economists, policy makers, educators and people who provide practical solutions to the pressing problems of disease, poverty, energy production, failing infrastructures social systems and food systems is obvious. So what, in this mess, is the poet’s role?
It may be a peculiarly North American question. Countries ravaged by war or nearly strangled by oppression, where religion is discouraged and spiritual resilience is eroded by entrenched abuses of power produce remarkable poetry; indeed the practice of poetry seems to be an essential subversive practice, a fact recognized by all those who gather, sometimes in peril of their lives, to hear poets recite. Khaled Juma, a Palestinian born in a refugee camp, includes nine books of poetry among his many publications. Women in Kabul run a phone hotline where girls from war-torn Afghan villages can call in and share their work. Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh’s book-length poem opposing oppression is one of ten books of poetry he has written in exile — he was sentenced to death for it and fled to Sweden. He has spoken widely about the role of poetry in the struggle for freedom. These poets might answer “Why read a poem at a time like this?” in something like the way one of my students did when I posed the question in a classroom that included adults returning to school at great cost: “Poetry saved my life.”
Or “Why read a poem at a time like this?” may be a question one is likely to pose in a state of health when not driven by pain or suffering to the edges of feeling and awareness; reams of poetry are written by people for whom even picking up a pen is a costly expenditure of energy. Several years ago I wrote a book called Patient Poets in which I offered reflections on poems by people with chronic or terminal illness or disability. It was a humbling book to write. Most of them seemed to have discovered in poetry something like a vein of opal buried deep in the earth, hard to mine, but radiant with sequestered fire. The wrote because they needed to, and because no other form quite suited; illness isn’t always a narrative. Sometimes it’s disruptive, disjunctive, cryptic, jolting, and ill-suited to polite discourse. Karen Fiser’s “The Angel Standing in the Sun, ” for instance, includes this small moments from hospital life:
At the clinic a little boy screams inconsolably
Before the saw has even touched his cast,
That hurts, that hurts, that hurts,
As the doctor leaning over to me whispers,
I just want to listen to your heart.
No story ensues. We make of it what we will. Poetry points, but does not explain. It invites, but does not insist. It rages, but does not close down the possibility of life in the midst of death.
Certainly comfortable people can write poetry. Wordsworth had a pretty cozy cottage in the Lake District. Eliot lived fairly well, though he suffered a good bit of interior darkness. Auden enjoyed some good times. And Billy Collins laces his days and poems with laughter we loved so much we made him the national laureate. And we need amusing poetry that pulses with life and enjoyment at a time like this, to be sure, though good poetry is always emotionally complex, and the deepest happiness knows something about darkness.
All of us need it. We need it because good poems do something prose can’t do. They invite and enable us to notice the precarious fissures in what we think is solid ground. They direct us toward the light at the edge of things — the horizon, the fragment of dream before dawn, the feeling that’s hard to name, and can only be accurately captured by metaphor. They take us to the edge of “what can’t be said, ” and ambush us into feeling before we think, so that we can’t simply and complacently “believe everything we think.” Poetry deals in surprise and subversion and turns old words to new purposes.
One of the poet’s functions is, as Eliot put it, and Mallarmé before him, to “purify the dialect of the tribe.” That is, to retrieve words from being ground to cliché and turned to pap or propaganda by reframing them — setting them in lines like these, which I love, from Anne Sexton:
I knew a child once with the mind of a hen.
Love grew around her like crabgrass.
I know a child like that. She’s a woman now, but I think of her that way, and would never have seen her in those remarkable terms but for Anne Sexton.
My skepticism about patriotic legitimations for the atrocities of war took root early with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est, ” and those roots cling even in the worst of times. Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” gives me words both for the dismay I feel and the hope I try to sustain in the midst of abuses of power so normalized it becomes hard, some days, to see what atrocities fly under the banner of normalcy. Poetry gives shape to feelings I didn’t know I had, but recognize when they are named. A good poem almost always takes me by surprise — as Howard Nemerov claimed it should in his lovely essay “Bottom’s Dream: On the Similarity Between Poems and Jokes.” Poems reframe and redefine and redirect, urging you out of grooves into spacious territories of the heart, often unexplored.
I read poems in this dismaying election year, in this decade of increasingly visible climate change, in this century of endless war, in this polarized and precarious economy, in the midst of crumbling infrastructures and damaged public discourse because they give me hope and direction and renew my faith that words are agents of actual energy and grace which, used with care can tell the truth slant with “superb surprise” and dazzle us, gradually or with swift and sudden force, into insight and action.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish