Poetry is how we make sense of our lives. Poetry in books is the least of it. Every move we make, every word we say, is a poem in its own right. The closer what gets written down comes to reflecting what we actually do with our lives, the better it is. Life doesn’t rhyme. Pretty little poems about trees are only worth reading if you’re willing to die for the tree.
A poem is a tool, a map, and in the right hands, a weapon. Think of Sylvia Plath hurling poems in the face of her oncoming suicide like a child throwing rocks at a charging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Think of Milton’s Lucifer, choosing hell over heaven, inventing the bad attitude for all time. Think of Bukowski’s “Small Talk”, where a man who knows he’s only got a few years to live sits down for a friendly chat with death and winds up feeling sorry for the poor bastard. And then there’s the poetry that happens all the time, that gets said once and doesn’t need to get written down.
Like that time in Queens a few minutes after sundown when everybody was scurrying around for last minute supplies because the weather report said a giant winter storm was on its way. Just as I got to the corner with my bag of groceries the wind carried in a long, smooth stream of
crystallized confetti, gleaming in the streetlights like weightless diamonds. Everybody stopped dead in their tracks and looked up at it. Across the corner from me, this big guy in a hooded sweatshirt, Queens incarnate, raised both his beefy hands to the sky and intoned, in a voice loud and clear enough to put the weather gods on notice, with just a touch of the kind of humor that makes defiance unnecessary, “Here it comes!”
Now that’s poetry. That’s what Shakespeare was trying for, and occasionally hit, when he got lucky. And the guy on the corner had much better props. Poetry is us putting the weather gods, the time gods, the hunger gods and even their big brother the death god on notice that we’re not gonna take this shit quietly - that we’re ready for it, that they can keep it coming, that we’d miss it if they didn’t, that we can take the mess we’ve been handed and turn it into something beautiful. They’ve got the cancer, we’ve got the words. They may or may not be enough – every one of us is a jury of one on that one. The point is, no matter what the gods throw at us, they’re not gonna shut us up. Only we can do that.
When we stop talking, when we stop drawing, when we stop writing this stuff down for other people to see, when we stop singing, in short, when we stop creating, we start destroying. We drop bombs on each other thinking that’s going to get the gods’ attention. It does, and they’re laughing at us. The storm didn’t laugh at that guy on the corner in Queens. In fact, I thought I saw a snowflake tip its hat. And Dylan Thomas wasn’t laughing when he stood over that child’s grave with his hat in his hands. And then he went home, put down his hat and picked up his pen. He didn’t go out and try to bomb the other guys. If they’d asked him, there wouldn’t have been a war in the first place – a fistfight in a bar maybe, but no war. War is poetry gone wrong. We need as much of the good stuff as we can get.
And that’s why poetry matters.
Readers are urged to check out the good stuff:
A Refusal the Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London - Dylan Thomas
The Ariel Poems- Sylvia Plath
Paradise Lost - John Milton (forget what your English teacher said about it, it’s a hell of a story)
Small Talk (the one from "The Pleasures of the Damned") - Charles Bukowski