“Well, write poetry, for God’s sake, it’s the only thing that matters.” —e.e. cummings
That statement, by a U.S. poet known for highly stylized poems, who’s own views moved from Unitarian to Republican, may appear odd, contrived, out of touch. I can’t say Cummings’ words are entirely true. How can poetry be all that matters? Most poets wouldn’t say that. Even good teachers can’t claim their students are all that matter. Or a master mechanic wouldn’t say that of cars.
Yet it’s a declaration we need to seriously consider, especially in our culture where poetry is relegated to the margins, to a “weird” art, as a rarely compensated or honored practice outside of a small, and often contentious, group of people.
Today we have to ask: Does poetry matter at all?
It’s hard to assign worth when there is a hierarchy of “values” hanging over our heads determined not by nature or science, but powerful men. I’m not talking about family values or cool traits. I’m talking net worth. The bottom line—“if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”
If that’s the case, poetry should cease to exist.
Many of us are among a disparate class of “po’ poets.” Yet the art persists; like a genetically evolved organism, it adapts. Poetry is strong among the young, the displaced and overlooked. It sprouts in movements like the “free verse” movement, the imagists, the confessionals, the Beats, the 60s movement of black and brown poets, the formalists, Hip Hop, slam poetry, and more.
Poetry in its varied forms of presentation is growing in MFA programs; thriving at open mics in cafes, bookstores, storefronts, schools, libraries, bars. And there are presses, hanging by thin threads, I admit, that only publish poetry.
Despite the constraints, poetry continues to be, as British poet Matthew Arnold once stated, “simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.”
Recently I took part with several poets of all colors in reading poems by black writers in response to “Black Lives Matter.” Similar readings have been held around the country to speak out against the disproportionate number of unarmed black people killed by police. Appropriately the organizer read names of those recently killed, including Latinos and others. I read a poem by Henry Dumas, a black fiction writer and poet, who in 1968, at age 33, with two small children at home, was killed by a transit police officer at a Harlem train stop. His “crime”: jumping a turnstile (in a case of “mistaken identity”). All his books were published posthumously.
What a powerful event this was, at “The Sweat Spot” in Silver Lake, with every emotion evoked, singed by diverse voices, and a catharsis driven by a commonality of interest.
Poetry is not easily monetized, industrialized and exploited—hence its lack of “importance” in our modern culture. But its “value” goes beyond the mundane or profit-oriented. Poetry is a way to impressively carry ideas and emotions, which in turn is a way to impact and change this world.
And as long as the world needs changing, we’ll need poetry.
As my friend, the mythologist Michael Meade writes, “It is easy to feel lost and betrayed in a world of increasing alienation, where greed, injustice, and dull materialism obscure the underlying dream of life. There is a path the soul would have us take and a unique way of seeing the world it would have us awaken to. There is a music and rhythm in the body and a song in the soul; both an inner vitality and an instinctive connection to the divine that is the inborn source of great imagination and creativity.”
Poetry is how one establishes a pattern in one’s life, away from and opposed to the inauthentic patterns imposed by others, by norms, by societal value systems. It’s a way—as all artistic practices are—to see life through the lens of our innate dream, our inner impulses.
The “giants” in our world—big institutions, big wealth, big media, big politics (fueled by big wealth)—seem daunting to take on. But poetry can be a David with multiple slingshots: precise imagery, clear ideas, a strong narrative, in the finest sequence of words.
Looking at it this way, I recall times when I was in dark spaces, lost, pissed off, tired as hell. Poetry then came and claimed me. An art, a practice, a passion can do that. When that happens, you may realize the lifelines, the healing powers, are inside of you.
And this is when poetry means everything.