2 posts

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

Indifference–a Most Unexpected Angle


In my last post, I shared a Czeslaw Milosz poem that seems to have echoes in many other works by many other poets. Anyone who has studied or simply read deeply of literature and mythology knows that writers’ fascination with life and death leads to thoughts of the world’s curious indifference to us.

Yes, we are subjective animals, especially when it comes to our favorite topic–ourselves. The world, however, is an objective entity. It rolls on. Whether we are sick or healthy, sad or happy, dead or alive, means nothing to it.

How, the subjective and reflective human asks, can something so beautiful (the world) remain so indifferent (uncaring), especially to someone as sensitive and thoughtful as me, myself, and I?

The theme of indifference not only preoccupied a set of poems I wrote, it also led me to unexpected places, one being a man I knew little (OK, nothing) about–a 16th-century Spanish soldier fascinated with courtly love and tales of brave knights (Don Quixote, anyone?). This Don became famous for other reasons. He became a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, a man called St. Ignatius of Loyola, now famous for founding the Jesuits.

The quixotic Ignatius turned the word “indifference” on its uncaring head. He saw it as a noble trait, one we all should seek.

What, you ask? Why be uncaring sorts when we’ve been taught otherwise since childhood? Because Ignatius meant that we should be “indifferent to all created things.” Good and bad, lovely and horrid, admirable and reprehensible.” Steel yourself and accept, in other words. This is your objective world in all its horror and glory.

This new interpretation of the word fascinates because it goes to our human weak point. Our subjectivity. Our love of self. Its precept is simple: We shouldn’t care if we are healthy or sick, enjoying ourselves or suffering, because whatever occurs is God’s will.

If you distrust matters religious, you can simply see it as fate or a case of Doris Day-like que sera sera. In which case, indifference looks almost like the Stoic’s shield. You are admired because you are indifferent to what life brings to you. You do not for a minute consider yourself special or deserving or the exception to everyone else’s rules.

In that case, being labeled “indifferent” becomes a red badge of courage. It is the defeat of selfishness and ego. And you thought word denotations were simple and well-behaved!

Have an indifferent day. If you dare.