Sunday, February 6, 2011

Does Poetry Matter? (2)

What I think I've established so far is to frame the question in a larger context. Beyond the individual reader or writer, beyond the community of poets themselves, does poetry matter?

There have, of course, been times that poetry, even a single poem, mattered to our nation. Walt Whitman wrote the great poem, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” to commemorate the funeral train that carried the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln from Washington, D.C., to his burial place in Springfield, Ill. At the time of its publication, this poem mattered greatly, and ever since then it has conveyed to schoolchildren who read and learn the story what it meant to lose a great leader, what it meant to mourn as a country.

When is the last time a poem mattered to the United States? I remember on September 11, 2001, on National Public Radio, they interviewed the poet laureate, Billy Collins. When I heard that it was Billy Collins, my heart sank. Although I’m a great admirer of his poetry, which is witty and intelligent, I did not think he would be up to this solemn occasion. In some ways, he wasn’t. When asked what poem we should read, for solace, strength or understanding, he said something like: “Read any poem. All poems speak to life and death. All poems speak to our humanity and human experience.” Then he was more specific: “Read the 23rd psalm.” It was interesting to me that a news reporter would think to ask for a poem on a day like that day. It said a lot about what we want and expect from poetry, and how we want and expect it to matter.

The famous issue of the New Yorker after September 11, with its cover showing blacked out columns representing the Twin Towers against a black background, devoted its back page to a long poem by Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who has lived in Paris and the United States since the mid-‘80s. The poem is titled, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Written more than a year before 9/11, it struck me and many others as offering a way to move forward in the face of such tragedy. This, in its message and placement in a publication at a specific moment of history, was poetry that mattered. It was very moving at the time, and remains more moving, I think, than the anthology-worth of poetry written about 9/11 since then, much of them "where I was when..." poems that put more focus on the poet than on the event.

Another poem that I've always believed matters to us nationally is Yusuf Komunyakaa's great poem about visiting the Vietnam Memorial, "Facing It." Many of us have experienced a visit to the Vietnam memorial, and many have written about the power of that memorial, the black granite "scar" in the earth with the names of 58,022 names engraved on it in the order that they were killed. But it is only poetry that can give us the experience in this way, both drawing us into a single veteran's experience and seeming to wrap up all the suffering -- both during the war and after -- in simple lines and images. Here is a poem that truly uses the tools of poetry to bring us into an experience that we long to share, offering as well a deeper understanding of our national identity and history. Just read these closing lines of the poem, as the black poet/veteran looks at the reflections on the black granite memorial and tries to capture what he sees:

"A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair."

It is for lines like these that we need poetry to help us tell our story.

1 comment:

Connie said...

I really enjoyed this post! Would you believe that when I read the title I immediately thought of "Mutilated World" and "Facing It"? (My poetry students send their greetings and will be interested in seeing your essay.)