Why Poetry Still Matters

I’m not a poet, as much as I’d like to call myself one. It’s a common folly among people who turn blank pages into essays, articles and stories to add the epithet “poet.” Every writer, no matter what they write about — anyone whose business it is to link words together — appreciates the power, importance and elusive genius of poetry.

So, I say again, I’m not a poet. I read poetry, and I regularly make attempts at reproducing the kind of beauty I discover in the words of my favorite poets. But I’m not drawn to writing poems like I am to writing short essays and stories.

Octavio Paz called poetry “the supreme form of language.” Our species has created language, the engine of communication, and the best poetry is that engine at full power.

Poetry possesses the ability to penetrate human existence in ways regular prose cannot. I can write paragraphs explaining the joy of existing, but a great poet can do it with one line: “Clear and sweet is my soul . . . . and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.” Poetry can capture the image of something sharper than the clearest photograph. I can tell you about waiting for a subway train in the Loop, but another poet, living in another place and time, has already described the scene for you: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.” As the supreme form of language, only a poem is able to express our supreme emotions. I can write a love letter to my wife, but any words I invoke will inevitably fall short of a poet’s: “I love you as one loves certain obscure things,/ secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” The poet can be a diarist recording the deepest sentiments of an oppressed minority, its innermost despair and hope. I can draft a manifesto declaring my refusal to remain subjugated, but one of our greatest poet laureates has already stated it:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

And yet, despite the power  of poetry and its influence on the course of human history, the poets and their words have become increasingly unpopular during my 29 years. Whereas in the past the words of poets fueled social and political revolutions, now poetry is widely viewed as elitist and esoteric, a pastime for people detached from the real world. Poets are accused of having their noses in books and their heads in the clouds, instead of sharing in the everyday worries of the overwhelming majority. Before children and teens were taught to memorize lines of poetry and interpret their meaning. But how many people do you know now — your parents, your friends, your siblings — how many of them can recite a few lines of poetry, much less an entire poem?

The unpopularity of poetry isn’t exactly a new thing, of course. I doubt my ancestors working the sugar cane fields in Puerto Rico or digging down in some Honduran mine had the time, energy or resources to cultivate an appreciation for poetry. But I think the neglect of poetry seems to be worse now, especially in America, than it has in generations.

Maybe it’s because poetry is thought to be the antithesis of the two dominant forces of our times: ideology and technology.

Poetry, like most art, is assumed to be apolitical — even though there’s a list of artists and works of art that disprove this assumption. Art is supposed to shun all ideology, to simply be an expression of the soul, to have no other agenda besides expression and experimentation. So in today’s hyper-political age, where even something as supposedly objective as the news is dripping with ideology, poetry is seen as a silly or even dangerous distraction from the crucial issues of the day.

And on technology, do I really have to explain how obsessed and intertwined we’ve become with all things technological? Must I point to how we’re placing greater emphasis on STEM education while defunding the arts? Is it that difficult to find a 9-year-old who can work an iPhone but can’t recite one line of poetry — that isn’t also the lyrics to a song?

Which brings me to the other factor making poetry seem obsolete: music. Music is everywhere and all the time. People play music when they work, when they play, when they eat, when they sleep, when they walk around, when they sit on the bus. They listen to music when they work out, when they’re stuck in traffic, when they should be reading. With the ubiquity of music, reading poetry has come to be viewed as a pointless, less stimulating activity. And I’m sure there are millions of people, maybe even tens of millions, who consider music an adequate substitute for poetry, like the people who eat fruit-flavored candy and consider it a substitute for the recommended apple a day.

Music can be poetic. But as the commercialization of music has surged, its artistic value has naturally plunged.

I understand why poetry has become so unpopular, because I was once one of those people who roll their eyes at the mere mentioning of poets. I grew up poor, and while there were plenty of opportunities for me to inject poetry into my life, I refused. Reading poetry, reading at all, was just not something the boys in my neighborhood did, at least not the boys who wanted to be cool and not bullied. I knew I was naturally smart — getting A’s didn’t demand much effort — but I suppressed my intelligence as a gay teen might try to bury their homosexuality, neither of which was socially acceptable in my neighborhood. So I slacked off in school and gained acceptance with the street kids.

One poem acted as a raft tossed out to me floating. One poem was the first to hint to me that, if I wanted to, I could be myself and be happy. I was in middle school, and my language arts teacher asked my classmates and I to choose one poem each to read in front of the class. During the next session we were marched down to the school library to search the shelves and pick a poem. I didn’t know the names of any poets, save for one. I’d attended Robert Frost Elementary and knew that Frost was a poet of some kind. So I searched the stacks, found a book of his poetry and perused the pages.

I didn’t understand most of the poems in the book. They were all about trees and fields and old stone walls. I was convinced I’d been right in thinking that poetry was meant for boring old white people. But then I came upon “The Road Not Taken.” It’s last stanza echos in my mind to this day, and you can imagine what those words meant to a poor, hopeless boy struggling to drown his dreaming.

From then on, I began to notice poetry. ‘The Simpsons’ introduced me to “The Raven” — which displays greater wordplay and meaning than anything you’re likely to find in hip hop. ‘Poetic Justice’ put Angelou on my radar. Sandburg taught me to see the city, while Hughes taught me to see the people. William Carlos Williams showed me how vivid words could be. Bukowski taught me that even a scumbag like me possessed good poetry inside him, if I were brave and honest enough to let it escape me. Neruda taught me what love looked like in ink. Whitman told me to take nothing for granted.

Now that I’m a writer and editor for an arts and culture website, it’s unavoidable that I’d try to spread the gospel of poetry to other people. Towards that end, I’ve organized a poetry reading at Gozamos’ artistic space in Pilsen, inviting three poets to come share their work with our friends, family and readers. I was asked by a few people why my first event was going to be a poetry reading, and I hope this little essay goes some way toward answering that.

But I also wanted to get the poets themselves to describe for me and Gozamos’ readers the importance and relevancy of poetry in an age that seems to not need the work of poets anymore.

Erika L Sánchez, whose words have appeared in a wide variety of publications, had this to say:

I can’t imagine my life without poetry because poetry has both metaphorically and literally saved my life. As a depressed teenager, I clung to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. As an adult working a job I despised, I’d surreptitiously scribble lines and images throughout the day to keep myself from screaming with utter frustration. It’s what makes me feel most alive, most connected, and most human. And I think it should be important for everyone, particularly now, a time in which our humanity is so often threatened.

Jacob Saenz, a CantoMundo Fellow and an editor for RHINO, wrote me this:

I’m a huge fan of Pablo Neruda and the way his work gave voice to the voiceless, the everyday people of society, the underrepresented. In some ways, I strive to do that in my work, writing about growing up around gangs and how I had to navigate through that world as a young Latino who was interested in books and art. The people from the block I grew up in, my family and friends, make their way into my art because the history we share is one I don’t often encounter in poetry. Yet I’ve found that more and more poetry resonates with those who have similar upbringings and perhaps encourages them to pick up a pen and write.

Finally, Denise Santina Ruíz, whose poetry has been featured at the Annual Barrio Arts Festival, Batey Urbano and other places, added this:

I think poetry is the truest news of our times. Always has been. When you want to know what really happened, you search for the scribes of that time. The poets, the subversives, the truth tellers. So long as truth is relevant, poetry will be.

I’m not kissing their asses or trying to seem as though I think like a poet when I say that I agree with everything they wrote, and I hope they’ll read this mini essay and judge that I know something, at least a little, about their art.

Poetry’s popularity may be at an all-time low, but poetry isn’t dead. Thanks to the poets themselves and the readers, poetry can always make a comeback.

One such supporter, who remains anonymous, has been tweeting Whitman’s 1855 version of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ line by line, over and over, since 2011. When I asked him or her why they thought poetry was still important, he or she wrote back, “Poetry frames experience and asks you to consider it at a distance, to step back and breathe.” When I asked, why Whitman, he or she said that the allure of Whitman was “probably his democratic impulse, his willingness to embrace just about everything. He doesn’t leave you out, he draws you in.”

Not surprisingly, Gozamos’ own Arts & Entertainment Editor Terry Carlton described something similar when he told me that “poetry has this unique unifying power that knows no boundaries. Rebels and scholars, all shades and genders of people — we all write to feel connected to a sense of progress in an ancient, esoteric, secret society of wordsmiths. And some of us just write poetry to blow off steam or whatever. Poets are bringing life to life through words.”

Jean Cocteau famously said, “The poet doesn’t invent. He listens.” I would add that a poet also sees, feels and attempts to understand. With one line or hundreds, the poet uses abstract symbols to describe something that is all too real: the human condition.

And as long as life keeps happening, as long as human beings continue experiencing the world around them somewhere, poets will keep trying to convey it all with words, and poetry will still matter.

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