Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Poetry Matters

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

--William Wordsworth (“The World Is Too Much With Us”)

I have never been good at small talk. I sometimes experience physical pain at cocktail parties and so-called “networking” events, as I try to feign interest in what some self-important person has to say about yawn-inducing stuff that is destined not to matter or be remembered. I tend to talk very little at these events and try to leave early. When I am lucky, I find a kindred spirit, someone who shares my disdain for triviality, who believes that life is too short to ignore that which makes life worth living; someone who shares my passion for the world of ideas and would rather discuss religion and philosophy, history and politics, or something really important, like baseball. It is a rare moment, it seems, when serious conversations occur, when we genuinely reflect with each other on ideas and notions that touch the human spirit, or endeavor to address the world’s problems. “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” This inspirational statement, urged by the character of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, is why I write these essays. I do not always have the answers and sometimes have the wrong ones, but at least I ask the questions. It is my attempt, however feeble, to develop deeper insight into the diversity of life.

I do not suggest that we must always be serious. God only knows that we need a little more light-hearted humor in this world. Laughter, especially the gut-wrenching, roll-over-and-fall-down variety, is an essential human emotion that makes us feel alive. Sometimes we need a little more Rodney Dangerfield and a little less quantum physics. (Rodney Dangerfield grabs his necktie and jerks his head, his eyeballs popping out of his face. I don’t get no respect, no respect at all. The other day I went to see my psychiatrist and he told me I was crazy. I said, "I want a second opinion." He said, “You’re ugly, too!”). But, as Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be. . . . It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility. . . . Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Let’s face it, being human is a difficult and complex endeavor. We do what we must to earn a living, take care of our families, and meet our financial obligations. But we often forget or ignore the things that should demand more of our time and attention. When we engage with the beauty of our surroundings, explore the miracles of science and nature, and open our minds to great works of art, we more meaningfully connect with our humanity. It is why I so like baseball which, for me, like good drama and great literature, captures the emotions and passions of my youth.

It is easy to ignore the majesty of the world around us, to become caught up in our day-to-day struggle to master an ever more competitive world, the demands of work and the pressures of life. The world has a way of beating us down that, over time, causes us to appreciate less the intricacies of life and the wonders of nature; the red-wing blackbirds nesting in the oak tree bordering the fence in my backyard, or the playfulness of the squirrels climbing and jumping from tree-to-tree in search of food. It is not our ability to sell a new product or land a new contract that makes our lives meaningful. Instead, science and theology, poetry and the study of history, art and music, genuine human interaction, these are the ways we share in the great human quest for truth and understanding.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances,” Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Physicist and astronomer Adam Frank, who writes for National Public Radio’s Cosmos and Culture, asks, “When that eventual moment comes and we prepare to slough off this mortal coil, will we be able to look at our years on the planet and feel that we created real meaning for ourselves and those around us?” Frank suggests that being aware of the wonders of the universe, to the mysteries of science and the beauty of the natural world, are what help us to feel alive:

[T]he process of trying to honestly enter into a dialogue with the world establishes a context for my own life that sometimes allows me to rise above the petty day-to-day squabbles of broken washing machines and general knuckle-headedness. By entering into that dialogue with great effort and earnestness, the world ceases to be something merely “at hand,” something merely there for distraction or entertainment.

Instead, it’s fully alive and present. The ever-opening sky, the wheeling stars and even the nightly stream of crows I watch heading to their evening roosts all become poignant mysteries that speak of greater powers than I will ever fully understand.
Like many professional people of my generation, my work and career are important to me. It is, after all, how I spend the majority of my waking hours. But as the years progress, I am less tolerant of competitive, ambitious, get-out-of-my-way people, interested only in self-aggrandizement, the size of their bonus, and landing the next big contract. I have observed clients, former classmates and colleagues work 70 to 80 hours a week for companies and firms that produce nothing of value. Sales targets, quotas, revenue origination, become the measured worth of the individual. The world of ideas, of passion and poetry, is something for which many have little time or interest.

“Being human is never easy,” writes Umair Haque, a refreshingly innovative thinker who authors a blog for the Harvard Business Review. “Perhaps as an unintended consequence of our relentless quest for more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now, we’ve comfortably acceded to something akin to a minor-league contempt for the richness and grandeur of life unquenchably meaningfully well lived.” Technological advancements have made the U.S. workforce 25 times more productive than it was 100 years ago. And yet, more and more jobs are moved offshore as companies hoard record profits; in the process, we seem to have produced a shortage of, in Haque’s words, “living, breathing, well-rounded humans; with a moral compass, an ethical core, a cosmopolitan sensibility, and a long view born of historicism. What we’ve got plenty of are wannabe-bankers whose idea of a good life goes about as far as grabbing for the nearest, biggest bonus – what we’ve got less of are well-rounded people with the courage, wisdom, and capacities to nurture and sustain a society, polity, and economy that blossom.” We need more people who can master the art of “nuance, subtlety, humility, and grace.”

Perhaps we need more poetry and less measuring sticks, more reflection and less cold, calculating reaction. Our politics have become mean-spirited, lie-induced, nightly responses to an increasing alienation infecting the populace. Our businesses and corporations have become impersonal, button-pushing, computer voice-overs that sacrifice human beings to save three cents on the dollar or to earn an extra 0.5% return on investment. Poetry, like literature, art, and music, provides “a language adequate to our experience,” explains poet and writer Jay Parini, author of Why Poetry Matters (Yale University Press, 2009). “It teaches us how to live our lives, how to locate and describe the inner life. . . . enhances our sense of the spiritual world by attaching us closely—almost physically—to the material world. . . . [and] refreshes our lives by refreshing our sense of language, making reality visible in unique ways.” Without poetry, Langston Hughes may never have written, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Poetry helps us to clarify and make sense of things, to see things in a more perfect light. Hopkins described poetry as “common language heightened,” for it refines the language of ordinary life. To ignore the power of poetry is to be indifferent to all of the things that make life worthwhile. “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history,” said Aristotle, “for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”

I realize that poetry doesn’t matter to most people. Admittedly, I am neither a poet nor a student of poetry. But I understand its importance, even if I don’t practice its art. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to the poets, we would have less tolerance for war, torture, and human depravity. “To have good sense,” wrote Horace, “is the first principle of writing well.” When I see my youngest daughter write poetry as a means of making sense of a chaotic world, and of expressing herself in ways and on topics she otherwise refrains from discussing, I see firsthand its power to transform. Poets, like writers of great literature and composers of powerful and emotionally compelling music, give us context, language and meaning. Poetry has the power to open minds and alter lives. In a world without poetry, we would cease to be fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords.

Ultimately, poetry, like science, theology, art, and philosophy, is a quest for understanding, a striving for excellence. By reaching for a higher plane and challenging our assumptions, we remain attentive and awake to the everyday miracle of our existence. “Let us remember,” said Christian Wiman of Poetry magazine, “that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”

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