“Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it but to those who need it.”
By Anna Daniels
So, is “April the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”? T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
or is April when
“the ponds open
like black blossoms,
swims in every one;
everywhere…”? Mary Oliver, Blossom
And here we are on May’s cusp– “depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas”–except when it isn’t because a different poet thinks about May in a completely different way.
Poetry is the Big Bang of language, beginning with a singularity of individual expression that spawns whole universes of thought, emotion and even action. Poetry enables the universe to know itself, express itself in an utterly astounding way by virtue of the human capacity for language.
Fleas are incapable of writing poetry about themselves. We do it for them…because we can. The shortest poem in the English language is Fleas. It is easy to memorize, impossible to forget and it’s funny.
Fleas (or Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes)
There is a great deal of poetry that isn’t as easy to memorize but also impossible to forget. This kind of poetry provides a mirror in which we catch sight of our own collective or deeply personal reflection. It enables us to flesh out shadows and indistinct features. In his poem The Second Coming Yeats wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first World War. I had reason to quote those lines yesterday during a conversation about the current state of San Diego politics. So while poems are rooted in a specific time and space, their essential truths transcend both. They continue to speak to us– and for us.
It is the intensely personal quality of poetry that enables us to confront our own nakedness and all that often implies– vulnerability, loneliness, alienation, confusion. The Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska’s poem Autotomy ends with the terrifying revelation:
The abyss doesn’t divide us.
The abyss surrounds us
Despite the grim recognition that death spares none of us there is a sense that as humans we share the awareness and experience. That sharing across time and space makes a difference.
Poetry is often the voice of resistance and rebellion, a call to action. Emmanuel Ortiz writes in A Moment of Silence:
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence…
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been.
Over the past month, SDFP has published a poem a day. Those poems don’t even come close to reflecting the variety of poetic voices, subjects and their execution. There are lots of poems out there. But, let me ask you this– Do you read poems to your children? Do you read poetry? Memorize a few lines? Do your kids study poetry in school? Are you the kind of person who lives by poetry?
I recently spoke to my very bright 17 year old nephew. He’s taking AP classes, looking forward to college and can’t remember the last class in which he studied poetry. He did tell me that the arts & humanities co-ops at Drexel University where he will be applying to school don’t provide the same kind of financial support as the technology co-ops. He also informed me that computers are now writing poetry.
It seems that poetry is being relegated to some lesser academic status while language itself flourishes as a marketing tool to sell us more stuff. Behold Monkey Farts. Surely there’s a poem in there somewhere… I am waiting.
But “poetry does not belong to those who write it but to those who need it. ” This is the very memorable line from the movie Il Postino— The Postman. Mario, a shy young man with little formal education is assigned the responsibility of delivering mail to only one person–Pablo Neruda. Over a period of time they come to know each other and Mario presents Neruda’s poems to his girlfriend as his own, to win her heart. Hence the line.
Here in City Heights, Hoover High School students walk down my street every weekday afternoon. It is quite common to see the boys plugged into their headphones reciting hip hop lyrics as they pass by, singly or in groups. Poetry matters and 45th Street is big enough for all of us and all of our poetry.
Young people need poetry that describes their world, reflects back their own faces, gives them the courage to resist when resistance is just and necessary. They find that poetry in hip hop, in the poetry of the streets and urban centers. These are the places where poetry flourishes now.
This poetry is wildly popular and like other artistic expressions, it is vulnerable to commercialization. Like other artistic expression it falls egregiously short in reflecting the voices of girls and women. But these poetic voices are “remixing the conversation.” Perhaps at this time and in this place, remixing the conversation is essential.
New York City schools are promoting literacy through the Urban Word project. The video clip below is about that project–and yes, it is poetry.
It’s April 30th and I don’t need to select a poem for tomorrow, although I do have one for Saturday because it is impossible to stop. But today, I will give myself up to the pleasures of merely circulating:
The garden flew round with the angel,
The angel flew round with the clouds,
And the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round
And the clouds flew round with the clouds. Wallace Stevens, The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
P.S. Parsley is gharsely Ogden Nash