It is difficult to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day for the lack of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams
One of the great joys of blogging is the opportunity to interact with other people who love poetry, many of whom are poets themselves. It's a social pleasure that I rarely encounter in my day-to-day life offline. Perhaps it's an unjustifiable cultural bias of mine, but most of my fellow Americans seem to head for the exits at the mere mention of poetry.
Thanks to an extraordinary teacher I had in high school, poetry has been a constant companion of mine for more than five decades. When I have felt friendless and alone, poetry has offered its friendship and reminded me that I am not the first to undertake this uncertain voyage; nor shall I be the last. When I have felt bewildered and lost, poetry has provided a bright lodestar against which I could take my bearings and find my way. And when I have found myself stymied over the inability to understand the true essence of love—this pervasive ideal that seems impossible to define with any precision—poetry has always revealed something so beautiful, so simple and unexpected, that I could say at last, "yes, this is what love feels like."
I'm digressing a bit here, for the main point of this post is to share some wonderful observations I have come across recently about the unique importance of poetry in our lives. The first quote comes from V.V. Raman, who is a theoretical physicist, rather than a poet himself. All of the other quotes are from former poets laureate of the United States, and are found in The Poets Laureate Anthology (2010).
(From Interview with Krista Tippett in Einstein's God)
[P]oetry is what gives meaning to existence. Not fact and figures and charts, but poetry. Poetry is essentially a really sophisticated way of experiencing the world. And it is much more than mere words and stories. Poetry is to the human condition what the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist.
Prose is about something, but poetry is about what can't be said. Why do people turn to poetry when all of a sudden the Twin Towers get hit, or when their marriage breaks up, or when the person they love most in the world drops dead in the same room? Because they can't say it. They can't say it at all, and they want something that addresses what can't be said.
It's poetry's uselessness that excites me . . . Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us feel less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves.
Time is not just money—sorry, Ben Franklin—time is a way of telling us if we are moving at the right pace through the life that has been given us. One of the most basic pleasures of poetry is the way it slows us down. The intentionality of its language gives us pause. Its formal arrangement checks our haste.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is the chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time.
Our lifetimes have seen the opening of abysses before which the mind quails. But it seems to me there are few things everyone can humbly try to hold onto: love and mercy (and humor) in everyday living; the quest for exact truth in language and affairs of the intellect; self-recollection or prayer; and the peace, the composed energy of art.
Photos: Photo of V.V. Raman downloaded from Wikipedia. All other photos were downloaded from the website of the Poet Laureates of the United States.