“It is difficult to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.”
-William Carlos Williams
I’ve never been one to read the newspaper end-to-end, mostly agreeing with the character in the movie “Meet John Doe”—“I know the world’s being shaved by a drunken barber. I don’t have to read about it!” Of course, I always knew who was President and looked at headlines as I passed the newspaper boxes, but I didn’t school myself in the details, trying to align myself with some larger story than the ephemeral “news of the day.” And it wasn’t so much a philosophical pose as a survival mechanism. I knew that if I read too much, it would slowly trample down my hope and that wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Of course, that luxury is gone and now it is a necessity to keep in touch. And yet still I suggest—up to a point. One 3-minute clip about the next revelation of the coronavirus pandemic delivered by a trustworthy source might be enough. No need to keep your ear glued to the 24/7 news stations or roam the Internet. For your own health and some sense of actively feeding both your own need and the culture’s need, may I suggest a stroll through the garden of poetry? (Or course, the actual garden in the park or path in the forest or saunter on the beach is pretty good also!). In these trying days, we ignore politics at our peril, but create a different kind of hazard if we ignore poetry.
The fact is that the Soul needs something more—always, but yet more urgently in times of crisis and despair. It needs some reminder that we are here for a larger purpose than the constant stories of how we’ve failed as decent human beings. We need some remembrance of the beauty we carry and the beauty that surrounds us, now largely ignored as we bury our head in our screen. In a collection of poetry titled GOOD POEMS for Hard Times, the editor writes a breathtaking introduction. How I wish I had his gift of eloquent language. Here is a sample of his genius and his timely reminder:
“…The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader is obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right. Poets have many motives for writing (to be published on expensive paper, to show up the others in your M.F.A. program, to flaunt your sensitive nature and thereby impress someone who might then go to bed with you, to win valuable prizes and fellowships and maybe a year in Rome or Provence, to have a plausible excuse for making a mess of your life), but what really matters about poetry and what distinguishes poets from, say, fashion models or ad salesmen, is the miracle of incantation in rendering the gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby lending courage to strangers. This is a necessary thing.
At time life becomes almost impossible, and you curl up under a blanket in a dim room behind drawn shades and you despise your life, which seems mean and purposeless, a hoax and a cheat, your shining chances all wasted, pissed away, nobody can thange this or make this better, love is lost, hope gone, nothing left but to pour a glass of gin and listen to weepy music.
But it can help to say words. Moaning helps. So does prayer. God hears prayer and restores the souls of the faithful. Walking helps. Many people have pulled themselves up out of the pit by the simple expedient of rising to their feet, leaning slightly forward, and putting one foot ahead of the other. Poems help…
Poetry is free speech. It is ever on the side of the irrepressible spirit and in opposition to the censor, to Management, to the protocols of the company psychologist, to the roomful of men in blues suits who casually cheat schoolchildren. It is on the side of exhilaration and the stupendous vision, the sight of the stars through the barred window, the perfection of small birds, the democracy of their chittering language and of our own yakfest and hullabaloo. Poetry is made of the grandeur that is available to a people with no fortune but with somewhere to walk to and ears to hear and a mind to transport him. They may be defeated in love and finance and yet the night belongs to them, they feel entrusted with the stunning sky, the guardian of the houses on the street and all the people in them. So are poets, the angels and shepherds of the sleeping world. “
So when you can’t take another virus report and you’ve exhausted the same old distractions on Netflix, consider a poem.
PS Are you wondering about the author of the above? More on that in an upcoming post.