In an essay entitled Twenty Poems That Could Save America, Tony Hoagland bemoans “we never quite got poetry inside the American school system,” although not for lack of trying. It’s just, he suggests, those efforts were wide of the mark, and as a result poetry –reading it, loving it, being nurtured by it – never made its way into our culture as it has in many places throughout the world.
Instead there exists, in America, a kind of schizophrenia about poets and poetry. Poets are regarded as unusual, perhaps special or somehow enlightened; poetry as an elevated, and mostly incomprehensible, form of language. Both well-respected, but to be given a wide berth at all costs.
Which leads to a moment which occurred recently in our Tai Chi class.
Thanks to a neighbor who asked, one day late in 2000, if we could hold Tai Chi in the gallery of Homewood Studios, a small group of neighbors and friends have been meeting every Saturday morning since to learn this art of moving meditation. Phrases like find your center or let everything go, take inventory and be mindful pepper our conversations as we stand in a circle at the opening of each lesson to tell how our week has gone. Many of us in the group are current and retired teachers. In Buddhist terms, we are a sangha.
Any group of individuals, sangha or not, who spend time together develops language patterns, learned shorthand for shared ideas and experiences. In one of these conversations recently, I allowed lightning rarely strikes in a classroom, but lighting a candle each day for one hundred eighty days produces the same effect. One of the others in the group turned to me and said, “You poets!”
What did he mean? What was he saying to me and to the group? Was there a shorthand at work?
We live in a visual era. Those who investigate these things suggest more than eighty percent of what we experience comes through our eyes. We also live in an increasingly digital era. Everything we once did for ourselves, from remembering someone’s name to memorizing a poem, is now done for us on our devices. One result of this shift is we forget how to do these things ourselves. Much earlier in our history as language-making beings, poems were used as memory devices, recorders.
Even before writing was invented, there was poetry. Metaphor. Early societies frequently employed poetry to provide a structure upon which oral history was built. Storytelling (epic poetry), family stories (genealogy), even laws were often expressed in poetic form, making the task of remembering easier. Today, most of this work is turned over to “the media” and to our electronic devices, though not all. Vestiges of those earlier habits linger in bits of poetry we, almost without thinking, use to remember things. Many English speaking–Americans know that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” A rhyming song teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths and names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. Preliterate societies, lacking the means to write down important cultural information, use similar methods to preserve it. Just think of The Odyssey or The Ramayana or The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The shift away from depending upon our own memories, on poetry, has occasioned an avalanche of clichés, visual as well as spoken, written and read. Attend to the news. Fires are always devastating. Tornados invariably rip through communities. Rescues are predictably daring. Any report on medical research includes either a close-up of pills being counted by a pharmacist or a researcher using a multiple pipette to transfer liquid from one vial to another. Economic news is regularly accompanied by a clip of sheets of dollar bills rolling off the presses by the thousands.
But sometimes that group shorthand I spoke of overrides our dependence on electronics and evokes a moment of real communication. The handy cliché, the antithesis of poetry, which stifles true communication, is defeated as a flutter of fresh language lights us up.
So what did Maury intend when he said, “You poets”?
I choose to believe he was valuing the fresh, the unusual, the unexpected turn of phrase – perhaps longing for it. We all recognize a metaphor when we hear one. Some of us are pleased and some confused, but original language, poetry, invariably captures us. If we pause at that moment, to savor what words are doing to us, a love of poetry is born.
WHAT ARE WORDS FOR?
Pretending we know more than we do?
Excusing our faults by noting others’?
What does forgiveness weigh? More
Take a word in your hand. If fire,
does it burn? If bird, does it sing?
Or release… A word worth its weight.
Open your hand, let the bird go
and the brief spark where its talons
Poem by George Roberts published in 12 Poems of Love & Longing © 2014.
Printed at DownSairs Press and reprinted with permission.
Twenty Poems That Could Save America and other essays by Tony Hoagland.
Graywolf Press 2014