What Is Poetry For?

At Garrison’s Keillor’s Bookshop in St. Paul, I happened across an anthology of Serbian poetry edited by one of my favorite poets, Charles Simic.  (He was born in Belgrade in 1939 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1954.)

The book is entitled The Horse Has Six Legs.  I wanted to use the title poem to introduce this page, so I wrote for permission to quote its three lines as an opening to the question this blog proposes.  Thus far, six weeks along, I have not heard from the publisher.

So I will tell you about the poem.  It is by Aleksandar Ristovic (with an accent over the final c).  He suggests poetry is not much read any more, a sentiment I want to explore in these pages, and then asks, (I am paraphrasing here), why, if this suggestion is true and we don’t read poetry any more, the reader is holding this book? peering at this page? looking into this poem?

We often hear poetry being dismissed, in the same way the arts in general are given short shrift, when policy discussions about improving education in our country take place.  In the face of mounting and convincing evidence to the contrary, the arts, poetry, are still considered extraneous to serious learning.  Frivolous.  And yet I recall another poem, this one by William Carlos Williams, in which he avers, (and I am paraphrasing again), yes, poetry is difficult, it rarely contains the news of the day, but lacking the information poems offer, people suffer immeasurably.

When we are suffering, we look for consolation and solace.  It is one of the times people readily turn to poetry.  So I wonder, if we followed the Zen suggestion to become more aware of our own suffering and the suffering of others, if poetry would take on a larger and more significant role in our culture.  I wish it would.

I visited the Soviet Union in 1989 on a teacher to teacher exchange.  Twenty of us were in my group, each selected based on a proposal we made to the funding agency about what we would do while there, what we wanted to learn.  I allowed I was curious about why Russians love poetry so much more than Americans, about what poetry was for there.  I learned school children, beginning from first grade, are expected to memorize two thousand lines of poetry a year for all ten years they attend public school.  Some of this poetry, especially in the earlier years, is little more than doggerel about good citizenship and good grooming habits, but slowly the poets from the Russian literary pantheon are introduced and the students are learning real poetry.  Imagine what effect there might be on our culture if each public school student, upon graduating from high school, could recite even a thousand lines of American poetry, much less twenty thousand!
I visited several Russian cemeteries on that trip.  In each one, at the grave of any well-known poet, there were always a handful of people gathered to recite the poems of that poet.  On the birthday of that poet, and I was there on Sergei Yesenin’s birthday, there were hundreds at the grave site and the grave itself was covered in cut flowers brought for the occasion.

What is poetry for in Russia?  If we look into the international politics arena, we might be inclined to say, “Obviously not much more than what it is for in America, a back water cultural diversion.”  From the many individual citizens I met, however, a vast difference between Russia and America was noticeable.  Their level of discourse was informed by a deep sensitivity to language.  They spoke with a consideration for their words that approached an antique dealer’s appreciation for Waterford crystal – something full of history, beautiful and fragile, in need of careful and thoughtful handling.  I can’t help but think a similar attention to language in our country would make itself felt in many areas of our lives, the political being one but certainly not the most important.

What is poetry for?  Not for memorizing favorite poems any more than it is for creating anthologies of the world’s favorite poems about fish, or holidays, or winter…although we do those things.  Nor for having the most apt quotation handy for beginning or ending a spate of public speaking, although we do that too.

Poetry is for slowing down.  It is a walk on a stony path, a turning inward.   Hurrying will only get you a broken ankle.   Looking deeply and thoughtfully, taking time, will get you into right now, the bedrock of poetry.  You.  Here.  Looking…



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