The unfortunate truth is that virtually no one reads poetry anymore. Though there are many reasons why this may be the case, as a former educator, the common grievances I heard against poetry were that it was too abstract, complex, and generally wandering. But it is for these very reasons that poetry is one of the highest forms of human expression.
However, I have not always felt this way. I doubt that I read a full poem over the course of my four-year undergraduate career. It was not until I graduated and moved on that I started to take a more serious interest in reading and writing. Among my developing interests was poetry, primarily ignited by Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society. John Keating (played by Williams) teaches a group of prep-school boys that poetry is not just an activity, but it is a way of perceiving the world, a way of life.
The film contains one of the most compelling monologues I have ever heard about the potential role that poetry can play in our lives. Keating tells his students: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.” He goes on to say that medicine, law, business, and engineering are all worthy professions necessary to sustain life, but it is “poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Keating goes on:
“To quote from Whitman:
‘Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish …
… What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
This powerful monologue has stuck with me for a long time, and it is one I shared with virtually all of my students. However, the magic of poetry has to compete against uber-addictive, binge-worthy television shows and bite-sized social media clips that have enraptured young people over the past 15 years. While I do not view poetry as impenetrable or needlessly complex, it certainly requires time and effort. But what worthwhile thing in life does not require time and effort?
It is also important to understand that poetry should be viewed as a personal experience. The purpose is not necessarily to understand what the poet meant by this or that line, but rather, the purpose centers on what we get out of what we have read. A perfect example of this truth is revealed when we read Psalms, Proverbs, or even the heartbreaking story of Job. It is not necessary to know the inner workings of King David’s and Solomon’s lives for us to be emotionally struck by their poetic words.
We do not need to be intimately familiar with iambic pentameter or the Beat Poets to feel the emotional impact of a piece of poetry. Poetry is about reading the words and allowing whatever image or emotion wash over us—without apprehension of asking questions. It does not require that we keep story arcs and characters in order, as we would with a standard fictional story or blockbuster film. It is about opening ourselves up to the multitude of meanings and perceptions in the world; it is about paying attention.
If you are anything like me, you have asked the big questions before: What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? Does God love me? Does the universe have a beginning? And all of these questions have been addressed, in one way or another, by poets through the ages.
I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in Psalms 8, which reads: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
Those two verses make one consider the incredible detail that God has put into His work—and the fact that he has created this infinitely large universe but still manages to be mindful of the smallest details of His creation. There is a whole philosophy embedded in those two verses and enough imagery to last a lifetime.
I believe poetry is seldom read nowadays because people seldom think deeply and emotionally about the issues that matter. Poetry extends beyond the borders of political and religious factions, narrative and character; it penetrates into the essence of human thought and feeling. Humanity will become a little less human if we lose poetry, and, unfortunately, it already has.
Image credit: PxFuel, NC