I believe I have known what poetry is for a long time. At first nursery rhymes; then playground doggerel and girls singing skiprope songs. Oddly spaced writing at the end of a story in my fifth grade reader. Language that confused me. “Why devote so much time to nearly incomprehensible writing?” I finally asked my eleventh grade English teacher, Sister M. Shawneen. She fished three or four copies of Poetry Magazine from a drawer in her desk. “Read.” I did, dutifully. Something took root, but I did not know what and felt not much the wiser.
A couple of years later, as a freshman in college, by chance I attended a poetry reading by Brother Antoninus (William Everson) who had just published The Crooked Lines of God. On the stage walked a man in a white monk’s robe and sandals, reciting lines like, The blood red gull / dives screaming into the surf / and giant snakes of kelp / wash up on shore at night / to feed on the fruits of our wartime dreaming.
Whatever had taken root back in high school, bloomed that evening. His language was the language of that something unknown and indefinable inside me. The direction of my life, on that evening more than fifty years ago, took a sharp and unexpected turn whose direction I have been following ever since.
In my dorm room, then, I thought I knew was poetry was. And tried writing it. I even sent that first attempt to Brother Antoninus, who encouraged me to keep at it. I did, dutifully. And I have, not dutifully but increasingly happily, kept at it ever since. Today, I believe I am nearer to knowing what poetry is.
But I still question what is it for? What is poetry for?
There were no newspapers, television reports, videotapes or blogs relating how the ordinary citizens of Greece responded to a recitation from The Odyessy in Homer’s day. Word has it everyone was moved, but that is mostly speculation.
Yet it is fashionable today to suggest no audience for poetry exists and no reason for poetry to be written continues from those antecedents of many centuries ago. We agree to the need for mathematics, philosophy, and law, each of which, (along with poetry), was developed in the minds of those heady Greeks, yet we dismiss poetry as irrelevant. Is it?
Or why is it everyone seems to know what William Carlos Williams said in that short poem about getting, or not getting the news, from poetry? Why is there a longing in us for something ineffable?
And does poetry fill that longing?