I love poems, but I don’t always particularly enjoy poetry.
I like the way a really good poem slices through the baggage of words and gets to the truth of things. I like the way a really good poem makes familiar objects seem unfamiliar. I like way a really good poem can surprise you, catch you off guard and force you to acknowledge beliefs you did not realize you held.
I love poems, but I have a terrible time with Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats and the crew. There was a time when I assumed that Eliot, Stevens and cummings spoke with ideas and a voice more rarified and brilliant than my own. I bashed my mind against their verse, trying to unlock their elevated ideas. It never happened, so eventually I stopped.
Then I started reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and I began to understand poems again. Poems are a kind of meditation. Poems are moments of complete attention where the object and the subject disappear. Poems are acts of gratitude. Poems are declarations not of how things should be but declarations of how things really are. Poems are prayers.
Poems are useful. They have a purpose in every day life. The problem is, too often, poetry gets in the way of poems. Poetry makes poems into an abstraction, an idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. We teach ourselves to fear poetry in high school and then feel ashamed about that fear for the rest of our lives.
I particularly like the way Billy Collins puts it, “It is a good thing to get poetry off the shelf and more into public life.” His 2012 TED Talk shares some ideas on how this might work. I was particularly amazed by the animated poem mashup he undertook to bring 5 of his terrific poems to a new kind of life.
Take a look:
What do you think about the idea of poems in public life? Where does the world need poems? How can we get them there?