These days, in this country, if you ask someone why poetry matters, she probably won’t reach for Shelley. Poets had a much better chance of being the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” back when some of the acknowledged legislators still read poems—and the emphasis on power and control doesn’t sit as well with the democratic ideals that shape so much of the thinking about American poetry. Now, you’re more likely to hear from William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Williams sets it up: “despised poems.” Despised but, apparently, essential. I love the poem, but for my own purposes I prefer to misread those lines. The implication for Williams and those who deploy him seems to be that men (and women) die miserably because they are missing something that’s found exclusively in poems. I don’t buy that. Instead, I think we die (and live) miserably for lack of something that can be found in poems—and in many other places, too. Movies, concerts, mountains, love. We need meaning, and pleasure, and poems are one way to find those things.
And yet: some of the meaning of poems, some of the meaning that comes from caring about poems, seems to depend on the feeling that they are essential. When poetry first courted me, it did so by offering conviction—a moral enterprise, quality counting for everything, every word, every sound. Even as I shied away from calling myself a poet, I found an identity in my care for poems. I found myself called to a halfway point—a medium—and imagined I’d arrived.
Sometimes it feels like we’re circling, warily, not wanting to say what it means to be one of us. We step away from the too-easy identity it can confer. Louise Glück: “I use the word ‘writer’ deliberately. ‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.” I agree, and yet: sometimes it seems silly not to acknowledge where the hours go, what they’re lost to. If I fail, I fail at this. It seems worth noting—at times. And if the pleasure I derive from reading poems, teaching poems, talking about poems, publishing, writing about, editing, even trying to write them myself…. If part of the pleasure and meaning that comes from that comes from being able to say I do this, I am someone who does this—well, what else should we do?
I think of Frost: “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” We’re here. Let’s make the most of it.