[I've been asked to write an article on the value of poetry for a writer's group for National Poetry Month in April. Here are some of my thoughts.]
A friend sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and that successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, its purpose, never wandering off on some tangent.
But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet starts to persuade you to take some course of action and is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence and wander through the "bee-loud glade," and see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose. We smell their fragrance and feel the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees make.
Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days, her lack of time today to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed, and she suddenly begins to tell us of the homeless couple she saw on a street in the city with their shopping cart heaped with belongings. They treat each other with such love and tenderness that in spite of the foul smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their souls shine from their eyes through the dirt on their hands and faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share pieces of their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world different from ours and lets us recognize the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion.
Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's beauty and joy as well as its pain and disappointments. It helps us experience life happening around us. We learn to experience that beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face is filled with joy. Or we look away from the screen with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery or how this poem has made us see or feel something we've never seen or felt before.
Poetry helps us learn to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, but also, perhaps, imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, country of origin. We can learn to feel empathy and treat others with love and compassion. The hatred, bigotry, and intolerance toward religion, race, and otherness that seemed to inform the latest national election perhaps needs poetry if we are to heal and close emotional gaps and to learn to value rather than denigrate others' otherness. Poetry can also help us see the beauty of and danger to the fragile web of nature of which we are a part and live in.