Monday, November 16, 2009

Does Poetry Matter Anymore?

What is the significance of poetry today?

I wondered that very thing when I stumbled on a poetic review website this morning, only to find the sad announcement, dated from Summer 2008, that it was closing down "due to overwhelming lack of interest."  I assume the reviewer was referring to his readers and not himself here.

I continued on with another morning task and lo and behold, discovered a surprising instance of quite the opposite—not only has poetry engendered in some a growing, passionate interest but a lifelong devotion, as, for example, evidenced in the overwhelming response to being asked: “What’s your favourite poem and why?

An astounding number of people offered to share their answers—-18,000, to be exact--Americans from ages 5 to 97.   A glassblower from Seattle, a songwriter in the Bronx, a bakery owner in Connecticut, a bookkeeper in California, an office worker in Georgia, a research analyst in D.C., a salesman, financial consultant, retired anthropologist, nun, anesthesiologist, teacher, student, novelist, poet, military officer, ex-president of the U.S., an eleven-year-old girl--all had been profoundly affected by a single poem, and agreed to share their story.

The My Favorite Poem Project has collected 27 videos of people from all walks of life talking about and reading their favourite poem. An Armenian, opera-singing professor of cognitive science talks about how a single poem by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova spoke directly to her. (A brother returns home from Vietnam, changed forever, "dead inside", unable to find his way again--it was as if Akhmatov knew what this woman and her brother were going through emotionally.)

I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—

An emigrant librarian in New Jersey reads a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, in the language of Bengali, explaining how it helped  her in her quest for identity.

Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection:
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit...

 Listening to which poems are people’s favourites-—and why—-can be very instructive for poets and writers in general. Certain sentiments kept being repeated:

“It [the poem] resonated with me.”
“I felt like I had something in common with the poet—there was a connection.”
“I felt a connection.”
“It had a personal meaning for me.”
“I felt she [the poet] understood what it [my own personal experience] was like.”
"There were certain lines that caught me ..."

A 34-year-old construction worker for a gas company in Massachusetts acknowleges that "poetry was definitely intimidating initially."  To him "it just looked like a lot of words that were out of order and out of place and did not belong together."  Nevertheless he continued reading, and found, in the last lines of "Song of Myself", that "Walt Whitman tells you what you're thinking."  His connection to Walt Whitman was not due to the fact that the poet talks about physical labor and working outside, he says--there's something else, something more universal, that roped him in:  he enjoyed it for its "upliftingness", its ability to "inspire" him and "see things in life and in everyday existence that I hadn't noticed before."

In one case, the favourite poem was one discovered over 30 years ago—the 45-year-old lawyer still carries its words around in his pocket, still reads them to anyone who'll listen.

So, is there a disconnect, I wondered, between the appalling lack of interest today among people in many quarters re:  the very subject of poetry, and the lifelong attachment by scores of other people in scattered corners of everywhere, to a particular poem, or to poetry in general?

I think it’s like going somewhere to a place you have never been before, where you know absolutely no one, trying to establish a new  life for yourself. There could be, say, a hundred people in your locale with whom you don’t particularly identify personally, politically, professionally or spiritually, and only 20 or so with whom you might, if you could find them, feel any sort of real connection. Like attracts like—or so they say. Nine times out of ten, within a short time, you will run into someone from that group of 20 (and by extension, get to know the others)--or they will find you.

Of particular interest to me was how people first came to poetry.  Was it at school?  Did they stumble on it accidentally?  Kiyoshi Houston of San Diego says it's because when he was a baby, his mother read tanka to him--in fact, she started before he was even born, while he was still in her womb. 

Is poetry still relevant today?  Out of a hundred people perhaps only five will even ever bother to look into it.  A majority may find it of no particular use or interest. But there are a few who will pass a poem along to someone who will pass it along to someone else, or be intrigued enough to search out other poems.

It'll be like a spider web painstakingly being developed, rendered jagged or partially dismantled from time to time by accident or intent--but its threads survive, the invisible effort of countless acts of creative construction, innovative applications, intent on survival, rarely noticed except when exposed in sunlight, glistening forth like a jewel of intricate dimension, from which you are absolutely unable to withdraw your gaze.  If you have ever watched a spider weave a web, up close, for fifteen minutes, you will know what I mean.

I imagine it must be like that for some, when the words of that one poem reach into their very core, to remain lodged for all time. 

The main message I got from watching some of these “Favorite Poem” videos this morning was this:  that

Poetry still matters.

 *Photo by awyn, taken along St. Lawrence River, Québec in October, 2009.  People come here to walk along the river path, practice Tai Chi, picnic, fly kites, sit on benches and read, or like this gentleman, simply sit on the stones and watch the swooping seagulls, barges and huge boats coming from the Atlantic heading down to the port at Trois-Rivières.  It is a favorite place to go, just to, as they say here, "prendre l'air" (take the air).  It is sometimes, however, impassable in winter (depending on the height of your boots and your general stamina).

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