When it was mentioned in a newspaper article that the poet laureate read a poem at a rally, someone remarked sarcastically, “Yeah, poetry. That’ll change things.” Actually, it does.
Yesterday, when a reporter for our local paper asked me if I thought my poem protesting the closing of the Lawrence social service office would make a difference to the powers-that-be, I replied, “Do I think the governor will read my poem and change his mind? No, I do not.” That’s generally not how poetry or any of the arts work although most of us who create art are quite open to spontaneous revelations resulting in miracles.
How poetry works is far below the headlines or soundbites. It’s also hard to describe beyond examples, so here’s some examples:
- Joan, one of my dearest friend’s moms and a friend of mine, was on her deathbed when my friend read Joan a poem I wrote her (for her recent birthday). After Joan heard the poem, she said, “Now I’m fighting [for my life] with poetry.” That poem at that moment connected her with her innate courage and life force.
- At a workshop I facilitated last week for people living with serious illness, I listened to a woman with advanced MS read a poem about how she found the strength to go on, and the poem itself gave others in the circle a little extra strength.
- During an excruciating time in my life, I found solace, hope and help in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, particularly the poem that begins, “I felt a funeral in my brain” because it ended with, “I hit a world at very plunge — and finished knowing — then,” which to me said after the ways of normally knowing what I know, I will fall through to a new way of knowing.
- Writing about people I love and reading these poems at their funerals — which I’ve done increasingly over the last few years — has allowed me to express that love and loss and also has helped some of my family and friends put into words some of what they feel.
Poetry isn’t just a way for someone in a dark corner to release her pain or someone in an ivory tower to do word gymnastics. It’s a communal thing: a force that can bring people together, help them find the common language between their deepest ways of knowing the world at this moment, and from the experience, open the channels to their courage, clarity and imagination. This is not greeting-card, touchy-feely, namby-pamby romanticism. Listen to what Rumi has to say:
there’s an artist you don’t know about.
He’s not interested in how things look different in moonlight.
This artist in us is interested in who we really are below the veneer and without the social costuming. And this artist responds to the poetry of life because she or he knows the importance of what language is and how it changes everything all the time.