Relevant poetry

I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Toronto a couple of weeks back, and opened The Essential Ginsberg, a collection of poems, songs and other writing by the late Allen Ginsberg, he of Howl fame*. I open the book at random and read the opening Ginsberg’s poem, Capital Air, which starts:

I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing around my feet

Allen GinsbergEven though Ginsberg wrote it in 1980, it felt like something he would be writing today about America’s Trump government. Or about the increasing repression and fascism in his country. I shivered when I read it because it spoke aloud to now.

Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was also an outspoken political activist for freedoms and rights. Although he died in 1997, I’m sure he would be writing similar lines today, had he lived.

Of course, I had to buy the book (well, buying any book isn’t a difficult decision). Not just for this poem but for others he wrote, the best of which were collected within. I also picked up three more books of poetry: Rumi: The Big Red Book (trans. Coleman Barks)**; Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (ed. Kacian, Rowland, Burns)***; The Essential Ginsberg (ed. Schumacher) and E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems (ed. Firmage).

I initially passed on the 1,100-page Cummings’ collection because carrying a 4.2 kg – yes, I weighed it – hardcover in my knapsack through the hot city was daunting. But thought about it overnight, thought about how much he reminded me of Don Marquis and his delightful archy and mehitabel poems, that blank verse and their shared disdain for form, and how little I had of Cummings’s work on my shelves, then made a special trip back to the store to get it the next day. I also found the haiku*** collection beside it, a serendipitous find. ****

An odd thing happens when I read poetry. Normally, I read a dozen or more books at any one time: I am a fairly fast reader with good comprehension. I can juggle all the different types, styles and topics without losing much if anything between books. But when I read poetry, it’s like my brain shifts gears and drops off cruise control.

Reading slows down, it becomes more focused. The chattering monkey in my head stills. Words become heavier, as if gravity increased. I read poetry with more attention to each word, savouring each one, sometimes repeating lines in my head several times, feeling for the rhythm, the wavelike motion of each. I parse each line with more attention than I do to prose. A single, page-long poem can take me as long to read as a chapter in, say, a novel or a history.

I usually re-read the entire poem, once I’ve gone through it, just to try out different emphasis on syllables. Find its inner music, weigh the words. Even poems I’m familiar with – and I am prone to re-reading my favourites – take longer than prose, as if I need to digest each line at a measured pace until it settles in my mind. 

It’s like music: emotionally entwining – but without the accompanying sound it’s a subtle mystery I have to decode. Although I can read music with a child-like effort, when I stumble through a songsheet, figure out the notes and how the tune progresses, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Same with poetry. When the poem finally settles in me, I feel like I’ve achieved something, solved something.

I have no difficulty writing prose. It falls off me like water from a roof in a rainstorm. But poetry for me is a slog, the death march of my intellect. I can’t disconnect the monkey brain that demands I analyze, assess, parse each word as I attempt to write. it’s like building a Lego house while stopping to measure the distances between each block and compare the height of their protrusions. I have nothing but respect, admiration and a bit of envy for those who are able to write it with any ease.

Poetry can move me, engage me as no other writing can. And I’m not sure why exactly that is; the effect is beguiling. Others have debated why it does what it does to us:

[P]oetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

That’s from an article by Andrew Simmons published in The Atlantic, back in 2014. Intellectualizing poetry is a popular theme and often a springboard for debates on educational content where poetry becomes another dart aimed at the political board. He also adds,

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

I don’t know what is taught in Ontario’s public schools these days – it’s been around five decades since I left high school – but poetry seems to still have a role here, at least in the view of some at the Ministry of Education. A paper by Dr. Janette Hughes on the Ministry’s website about “poetry’s important role in improving literacy skills'” notes:

Poetry should have a central place in all of our lives, not only for the aesthetic pleasure it affords, but also for its ability to awaken our senses, connect us with ourselves and others, and lead us to think in synthesizing ways, as required by its use of the language of metaphor. Poetry’s conciseness, its brevity, and its power to convey so much in such a limited space is its appeal.

Being educated in poetry, learning to understand how it works, how metaphor and literary elusion convey the message can help students understand greater things, she says, but it is also an end unto itself. Reading poetry helps students become accustomed to reading poetry and that alone is a goal worth aiming for. Reading poetry is the reward, not simply the vehicle that takes us somewhere else. I’m grateful to read her words.

Yes, I believe being literate in poetry is as important as being literate in any other field, from numeracy to astronomy. Having a broad base of education, and a wealth of knowledge to draw conclusions from simply offers a better chance to make one a better, wiser person. As Walt Whitman wrote, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” But that’s a view from the stratosphere, not an explanation of what poetry does to us in our hearts and minds.

Harry Posner, Poet Laureate of Dufferin County, said in an interview:

In this Internet age, it’s increasingly the case that language means less and less. Its weight has diminished. We’ve lost our ability to find truth in language. For example, Donald Trump. He uses the words “great, huge, tremendous” to the point where they mean absolutely nothing, because we don’t believe him. They are repeated over and over (he’s not a very creative soul). In contrast, poetry honours every word. In this way, part of the responsibility of a poet is to rejuvenate language, to restore its meaning in a fresh way.

One of the things that always irritates me online is the abuse of language (I am prone to post corrective replies). Yet when poets abuse it, it excites and amuses me. Perhaps it’s because of intent: Facebook posters and clumsy bloggers do it from ignorance. Poets do it deliberately, to evoke and invoke images and feelings.  Dr. Hughes writes,

Poetry evokes feelings and provokes thoughts about complex social issues. Poetry is more than a vehicle for expression; it is also a way of knowing. Poetry both requires and facilitates a concentration of mind or sustained attention to which our hectic lives have unaccustomed us. The linking of the strange with the familiar through the image or even through well-placed line breaks is perhaps what makes poetry so powerful. Poetry transforms the way we see the commonplace through new perspectives.

Pam Allyn, writing in the HuffPost in 2014, said,

Poetry should have a central place in all of our lives, not only for the aesthetic pleasure it affords, but also for its ability to awaken our senses, connect us with ourselves and others, and lead us to think in synthesizing ways, as required by its use of the language of metaphor.

But poetry also matters because it remains relevant. Even works written years, decades or centuries ago still resonate with us today. That’s one reason poetry remains important in our cultural lives – at least some of it has timeless relevance. As in Ginsberg’s chilling piece, September on Jessore Road, another poem in the book I bought. It feels like it was written about immigrants and Trump’s brutal treatment of them today, although it was penned in 1971:

Millions of babies watching the skies
Bellies swollen, with big round eyes
On Jessore Road–long bamboo huts
Noplace to shit but sand channel ruts

Millions of fathers in rain
Millions of mothers in pain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of sisters nowhere to go

One Million aunts are dying for bread
One Million uncles lamenting the dead
Grandfather millions homeless and sad
Grandmother millions silently mad

Millions of daughters walk in the mud
Millions of children wash in the flood
A Million girls vomit & groan
Millions of families hopeless alone

How can anyone not be moved by that? This morning I watched a Facebook video showing a young immigrant girl – not even a teen, scared, nervous because she had been torn from her parents and locked in a cage then dragged before her jailers, not familiar with the language of the judges and inquisitors – forced to sit in a courtroom to testify in her own defence. It was filmed last week, but it was like watching something from Nazi Germany. And this poem’s lines echoed in my head as I watched her.

And this, from W. B. Yeat’s, The Second Coming. Doesn’t it make you think about today’s contentious political arenas:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold. An apt description of today’s divisive politics, the heated rhetoric of left versus right. The worst are full of passionate intensity – exactly how I’d describe the recent populist movements that are dragging our nations towards racist, misogynist dictatorships.

Or these lines from Irish poet Patrick Pearse’s The Rebel and how it speaks for the shame of many Americans over what Trump’s government has done:

Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it
Reddened for that they have served, they who should be free
Reddened for that they have gone in want, while others have been full,
Reddened for that they have walked in fear of lawyers and their jailors.
With their Writs of Summons and their handcuffs,
Men mean and cruel.
I could have borne stripes on my body
Rather than this shame of my people.

Pearse was not just a poet in a loft: he was a political activist on the streets in the fight for Irish independence. After the Easter Uprising, 1916, he and fourteen other leaders were executed by firing squad. Think about that when you read his poem. He lived what he wrote. Poetry wasn’t just an intellectual exercise: it was his protest song.

W. H. Auden wrote September 1, 1939 at the start of WWII, but it could have been written yesterday:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

As the clever hopes expire… how many of us have felt our dreams of a compassionate, caring society, of inclusiveness and shared goals evaporate in the harsh light of rising populism and elitism?

And so on. I could pull lines from a hundred or more poems, all written in years past that still resonate in our world, in our politics and our lives. But relevance is not the whole meal, merely an appetizer. Finding relevance allows an earlier poem to resurface and be shared, to make us rethink events, but it’s an attribution by the reader, not the author’s intent.

I sit on my front porch in the evening light, reading these books, sipping a glass or wine or cold beer, and think the world is not quite as lost as it seems in the media, as long as we have poets to write and guide us.

* Written and first performed in 1955, published in 1957. Slate Magazine author Fred Kaplan wrote of Howl that it was an

…anguished protest, literally a howl, against the era’s soul-crushing conformism and a hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation, a style inspired by the expressive poets who went ignored in the ivory towers of high modernism—Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud —fused with the urban syncopation of the bebop jazz that Ginsberg and his pal, Jack Kerouac, went to hear in the clubs of Harlem while they were students at Columbia in the mid-1940s.

** Selections from the work otherwise known as The Shams, by the famous 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. I already had The Essential Rumi, a selection of his work – and he was a prodigious writer – also translated by Barks. There isn’t a single volume collection of every poem Rumi wrote because he simply wrote too many poems for one volume to contain. I was fortunate to find this used copy of The Big Red Book, which has eluded my previous efforts to find one.
*** I’ve long been fascinated by haiku both as poetry and as an intellectual exercise: fitting as much meaning as possible into such a small, confined and generally rigid form. I appreciated the original Twitter restriction of 140 characters as a similar sort of exercise: to reduce content without reducing intent or meaning. This particular book is, however, different. It isn’t a collection of translations as are my other haiku books, but rather haiku written in English by English-speaking poets. And not always adhering to the formal 5-7-5 structure of Japanese haiku. Plus, it is a leap across a very distinct cultural divide. Fascinating and delightful. I should write more about it.
**** During our recent trip to Toronto, Susan and I visited four downtown bookstores, and returned home with seven or eight bags of books – enough, I hope, to keep us busy all summer when we’re not out and about the community or puttering in the garden. I almost always pick up a couple of books of poetry on these visits. In previous trips, I’ve bought books of works by Chaucer, Heaney, Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Dickinson, Horace, Hughes, Basho, Cohen, Neruda, Snyder, Auden and others. I have long sun out of shelf space for books, yet I am compelled to buy them. And, of course, read them. 

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