I wrote the following this past summer while at Bread Loaf, for an assignment in which I simply had to compose a compelling argument. In thinking about what would be most useful to me as I embarked on a new teaching path, I thought of my future students in Intro Creative Writing, especially those fearful of the poetry unit, and what I might say to them about why I’ve chosen this new, creative path.
As students embarking on a liberal arts education, as well as an introductory class in creative writing, you will inevitably buttress up against an ageless question: why does the study of poetry matter? The question may come from well-meaning relatives helping you to afford to be here. Or from less well-meaning acquaintances met over a drink at a party. Or it might even come from deep within the depths of your own quaking, doubtful soul after staying up late puzzling over “the meaning” of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is, regardless of where it arises, a question worth considering. It is one your own teachers, including me, have pondered and will grapple with again; it is one writers throughout the centuries have been compelled to answer, from Aristotle and Percey Bryce Shelley to Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. With the economy barely recovering from near-collapse and student loan interest rates at a staggering all-time high, it almost feels safer to say “pre-law” or “pre-med” when asked what your major is.
And yet, here you are, taking the first step towards a formal appreciation of the art of poetry. As a teacher of youth in Philadelphia, Detroit, Andorra, in Europe, to finally here in Wilmington, I can attest firsthand to the power and necessity of poetry in the world today. It is my belief that many of you, whether or not you decide to continue officially with your studies of poetry, will take poetry’s presence with you wherever you go. Perhaps more than any other art form, poetry has the ability to break barriers, to serve social justice needs, and to speak to a broad sense of humanity that connects us all to a wider community on this earth. More than simply a decorative ornament on the landscape of literature, poetry is, as Lorde writes, not a luxury. It is a vital necessity that can lead to a deeper awareness of self and society that can, at its best, promote action.
Many of your peers—and indeed, perhaps some of you— might cringe at the P word, having been taught, as Billy Collins writes in “Introduction to Poetry,” to tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it. You might believe, as W.H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Or, you might follow Adrian Mitchell, who wrote, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” To counter such statements, we must call into question a canonical conception of what poetry is if we are come to a more global understanding of the power of poetry, especially as it relates to social justice issues. Rich notes in her essay “Not How To Write Poetry, But Wherefore,” that she came to a point in her college career where she ultimately considered Eliot—at the time one of the most revered poets—rather useless for her because he eschewed writing about ordinary people and their ordinary lives. More inspiring for her was Rainer Marie Rilke, who wrote, “you have to change your life.” For Rich, and for all of us, “poetry wasn’t enough as something to be appreciated, finely fingered: it could be a fierce, destabilizing force, a wave pulling you further out than you thought you wanted to be. You have to change your life” (Rich, 191).
During your time in this course, we will ask you to consider what makes a poem “good.” I have confronted this during my time as a teaching artist for Inside/Out Literary Arts Project, a non-profit dedicated to cultivating urban voices in Detroit. In encouraging my middle school and high school students to write poetry, I found them resistant, conditioned to a narrow view of what poetry was. To them, if it didn’t rhyme, or wasn’t something to be “finely fingered,” it wasn’t a poem and certainly wasn’t something they felt comfortable writing. It wasn’t until we considered how poetry could change our lives that my students suddenly freed themselves into writing their own truths. After encouraging one of my struggling students that there was no wrong way to write a poem, he blinked up at me, his welling eyes betraying years of struggle in the testocracy that tirades over our public schools, asking, “So in poetry, nothing is wrong?” “Right,” I insisted, “Poetry is possibility.” His subsequent poem about the lion that lives in our all hearts brought a transcendent smile to both our lips and speaks to a concept of poetry, in the words of Dean Rader, as being at “its core, about freedom.”
Ultimately, I posit that poetry’s power rests in its ability to offer, not just “dream, or vision,” but, as Lorde writes, “the skeleton architecture of our lives.” Poetry inspires other young people because it “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” Kathleen McCoy, a blogger for Poets For Justice, further elucidates the connection between poetry and action, stating, “Poetry—like music, like theater, like many arts and community activities—brings people together. And when people get together … stuff happens—good stuff. Empowerment. Liberation. Education. Social justice.” We only have to look at the legacy of poets like Patricia Smith, who wrote an award-winning collection on Hurricane Katrina, to understand how poetry has the power to include voices across the spectrum, empowering us to reach across divisions and speak out on issues of importance to our lives today. In her collection, Blood Dazzler, she offers a fitting response to the government’s neglect of its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, bringing awareness and validation, which is of course the first step then towards action.
Historically speaking, poetry has always been about action. One of the oldest art forms, it was a useful tool in pre-literate societies dependent upon oral tradition for the preservation of their laws, their history, and their overall being. Verse was used because it made the transmission of knowledge easier to remember. The roots of humanity exist in the forgotten, damaged, or lost verses that we re-create every time we write from a heart that seeks out connections to the past, present, and future. Poetry in all its myriad forms—canonical, musical, rapped out in a street slam, or scrawled youthfully on desks—allows a system for tapping into that collective memory, or consciousness, of what it means to be human. As an example of this, one of my mentor writing teachers, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith, said in an interview with NPR that she meets people of her parents’ generation and when she tells them she writes poetry, “they’ll begin to recite something that they memorized when they were in school, that has never left them.”
Furthermore, poetry is not just for teachers nor students of literature. In 2009, Robert Dolan, Dean of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, one of the top five business schools in the nation, reflected upon why, for the keynote speaker of their alumni reunion weekend, he chose to invite former poet laureate Maya Angelou, rather than, say, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He opened the event by explaining that he adores Angelou’s work and thinks people working in business can learn from her, stating, “I believe people in business do important things. To do their job well, they need wisdom. Maya Angelou’s work is full of wisdom on living a giving life.” Angelou builds upon the common ground poetry allows us regardless of time or place, emphasizing that “You need to have these poems, especially when you want to see how human you are, how wonderful, powerful, courageous you are.”
Thus, poetry is essential to our memory and understanding of our existence. James Tate writes, “Poetry says things that nothing else can. It snares the edges of the unspeakable. It grazes dreams…This is that magnificent dance of language that cannot be translated into prose. Each element is perfectly clear, and yet, together they form a kind of kaleidoscope, rotating, moving, through endless possibilities.” It is my belief that the best poetry is one that causes these endless possibilities for action and understanding; however, it is important that you decide for yourself what makes poetry “good.” There are so many poetries out there for you for settle. And whether this is your first of many, or first and last class in creative writing, take poetry—not just any poetry, but a poetry that speaks to your power, your courage, and your humanity— with you. Take it wherever you might go in order to remember, always, to let it move you to action—and maybe, just maybe, to let it change your life.