Poetry Still Has Teeth

During my first day in the Drew MFA program in 2009, students gathered to hear the faculty talk about a current favorite poem of theirs.  I’ll never forget when Alicia Ostriker, my first mentor, read Jane Mead’s poem “Concerning that Prayer I Cannot Make.”  At the time, I was fresh out of college, living with my mother whose mental illness was, unfortunately, getting the best of her, and wondering how and why my relationship with God was changing…and frightened by it all.

That first stanza unexpectedly hit me, as Florence + the Machine would say, like a train on a track:

Jesus, I am cruelly lonely
and I do not know what I have done
nor do I suspect that you will answer me.

Those three lines felt like I had written them. I was disillusioned with silence from God, yet I desperately wanted to love Him, but didn’t quite know what that looked like anymore.  I was rapidly being asked to grow up in many ways by taking care of my mother and shouldering a full-time job while going back to school. I was also the youngest in the MFA program at the time and felt completely inadequate as a writer. And yet I felt I had to swallow all of my insecurities and carry on like a good little soldier.  I certainly did not think of acknowledging my loneliness, anger, and questions.

This poem changed that.  It showed me that it was ok to question and be bold about it.  To this day, I still think of the last line of that Jane Mead poem where, after addressing Jesus, the poet addresses nature and all that is around her, saying, “Listen, I am holy.”

That last line broke me open.  Though permission is not required to write or to feel or to question, I needed it.  I needed that gateway to open so that I could remember my worth as a person.  I later wrote to my mentor that it was in that poem that I saw pieces of the writer I wanted to become.  I realize now that my connection to the piece was deeper than that.  I saw pieces of the woman I wanted to become–thoughtful, observant, full of questions, and, when need be, brazen. Four years later, these are all qualities I now possess.

Last week, a writer at the Washington Post posted an article asserting that poetry is dead. The main question posed in this article is “Can a poem still change anything?”  Here, in part, is the writer’s answer:

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.

This response to poetry both saddened and angered me.  I was angered that someone would flippantly say that a medium I love so much is “a limp and fangless thing.”  And I was saddened that someone could misunderstand such a powerful literary genre so completely. To only look at the numbers is to miss the point.  The author’s perspective is one I would expect from someone who has not been affected by poetry.

And I know that not everyone will be.  Poetry is not for everyone. But to make such a sweeping statement about a genre one is not familiar with is ill-informed.  I hoped that the writer would at least include some tidbits about speaking with lovers of poetry, but she did not.

Poet Daniel Nathan Terry wrote a response to the Washington Post article as well (and after reading it, I wondered if I should enter the conversation because his response is so articulate).  I do not have a story that brings together politics, love, and words so eloquently as he does. But, as seen earlier in this piece, I do have a story of how poetry changed me.  And I’m not the only one.

The fact that poets may not have the most followers on Twitter or that they don’t sell out stadiums does not mean the genre is dead.  Poetry may not make headlines, but I have been in small New York bars and witnessed the audience sigh as one when a poem knocked the breath out of their lungs.  I have seen a poet cry when reading her own poem because the words brought back the memory so vividly.  I have sat at countless tables in cafeterias, cafes, and living rooms talking about the power of the exact right word.  And every one of those people has a story about a line of poetry that sticks with them to this day because it’s power knocked something loose in their souls.  It was that knocking that spurred them to action.

Poetry still has teeth.

And in that sense, yes, I think poetry can change a hell of a lot.  Indeed, that may be the only way anything has ever been changed in a lasting manner–one person, one adversity at a time.

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2 thoughts on “Poetry Still Has Teeth

  1. I read that “Is Poetry Dead?” article a while ago, and it was painful. Their point about the supposedly limited number of people who buy poetry was somewhat ridiculous: maybe being a poet won’t make me a millionaire, but it makes me happy. There are so many people who write poetry and put it into the world for free, and there’s nothing like the feeling of someone telling you that they connected with what you’ve written…. My response to the statement that poetry cannot change anything is to say that I once wrote a poem about all of the china we inheirited and never use, and the day after my mom read it, we drank out of those delicate teacups during breakfast.
    I love your response to those accusations about poetry!

    • Hey, Heather! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I, too, found the “Is Poetry Dead?” article and had to write about it. I love what you say about poetry not making you a millionaire, but making you happy. So very true! Poetry can change the world. I’m glad I have good company in believing in that 🙂

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