What is Poetry For?
A few days ago, an old priest who was a colleague of my wife’s passed away, and my wife came home from work angry at the world. I was worried; Eva doesn’t anger often, and her grief seemed huge and unbearable. I couldn’t console her, so I asked Scott Staples, a friend who knew and admired the old man, to stop by our house. The three of us sat in the kitchen, Eva sipping milk, Scott and I icewater, toasting the old priest’s life, remembering picnics at his farm, his love of poetry, his kindness to Scott during a painful divorce, the old man’s struggle with homosexuality, his coming to peace with desire in his final years. His last weeks were spent in a hospital bed, ranting fragments of Shelley and Yeats, mumbling worries about his fall classes, ripping at his clothes full of bees, he said.
In the long shadows of the kitchen, we lifted glasses to the old man, his love, his fear, the final blessing of death, and as William Stafford says, we thought hard for us all.
For ten years I didn’t write. Other ambitions that seemed more important at the time called to me. I raised kids, taught school, built a business, and learned how to be a grown-up. Although I wasn’t writing, I did feel the pull of the spirit toward a life of the imagination. I prayed, I read philosophy, I took my kids to the art museum. I had long conversations with friends that lasted well into the night. I felt love and fear, and I experienced an occasional insight into larger patterns that inspired awe, but these feelings and insights disappeared without my recording them. A stone falls into the water and the ripples push out to the edges until the surface is smooth again, leaving no mark.
What I missed most was a sense of completion. When I write a poem, the desire for a pleasing aesthetic experience compels me to fill in the details, to continue the rhythms, to find closure. Without artistic ambition, the reverie stays half-completed, unsatisfied.
The last six months I’ve been writing like a madman, poems tumbling out one after another like a family of circus acrobats. Every poem I haven’t written over the last ten years is standing in line at the door, waiting for its name to be spoken.
So we write poems in order to give form to our imaginings, to make discoveries in our emotional terrain, to understand life in a way that nothing else makes quite as clear. And poems live in the vital center, made of the raw stuff of life. They reside in every small important thing we do: holding a newborn baby, teaching a child to read, consoling a friend in grief.
But why read poetry? What can these exploratory images and extended rhythms mean to someone other than the writer?
During my ten years of silence, I often read poetry for pleasure. Many poems delighted me with their music, wit, and color, but a few I kept returning to because they gave me something more than merely postcards from the poet’s inner travels. Epiphanic narratives such as James Wright’s Northern Pike, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Coming to Cuzco, and Jack Myers’ Jake Addresses the World from the Garden gave form to my own awakenings. I need these poems the way a vine needs a trellis. We might say that poets, in devoting their lives to the act of imagination, engineer the soul of our culture, designing and building the spiritual scaffold we must all climb as we struggle toward the light.