Accept an offer to join an M.F.A program and you will inevitably be asked: why? Your parents will smile and laugh about their “special” little girl (“We don’t know where she gets it!”), strangers will regret asking why you are going to graduate school, grandparents will suggest that you should start using more rhyming couplets. This question is valid of course—why writing? Why, more specifically, poetry?
Every few years, some journalist thinks she can avoid this question altogether by declaring poetry dead. After the recent inaugural address, which, for some, serves as the only time they hear a poem read out loud, that redundant article popped up in a Washington Post blog. You can read it here, but it’s not worth too much of your time or analysis. Indeed, the author soon regretted invoking the anger of people who have dedicated their lives to words. In a follow up article, she says as much, though she doesn’t further her argument beyond its original shortcomings. Hell hath no fury like a poet slighted.
But I’m not here to heap on the criticism—plenty of poets have already “carved angry sestinas” into this journalist’s yard (imagine, for a moment, a world where that constituted revenge?). I am here because “Why Poetry?” is a valid question, with as many answers as there are poems.
In workshop the other week, my poetry professor Dan Beachy-Quick said that poems are thresholds. Poems open doors that lead to other doors that lead to new rooms, new perspectives. In a workshop last summer, poet Gregory Orr told me something similar—that poems exist in the liminal space between order and disorder. Where one reader can swim, another will drown. Poems should always endeavor to exist in that doorway between chaos and calm. My undergraduate English professor said that poems are gifts. A friend says they are like prayer. Notice how every attempt to say what a poem is like kaleidoscopes into metaphor. Perhaps the palimpsest of these definitions will form some sort of cohesive shape, color, or word. Then again, maybe not. Poems are notorious shape-shifters.
What poetry is to me and why it is necessary changes just a little with every poem I read and write. The gut-deep need for it never changes, but my understanding of how it shapes my life is ever-expanding. Poems have always been a place for discovery. They have always been a much needed practice in letting go, loosening the illusion of control. Recently, poems have been a place for me to explore memory. How does personal and collective memory construct the perception of one’s self? How is this self distinguished from the body? How does the mouth-feel and word-sound of certain pieces of language invoke an unconscious emotional experience, an inexplicable connection that reaches back to a time before experience was bound by language?
Once again, I have likely provided more images and metaphors than logical answers. But that is part of the reason we need poetry—to understand that metaphors can be answers. That an answer isn’t so much an explanation as it is a dwelling place, that it’s not distinct, but gray. Poetry helps us to remember that all is slippery, is shifting, is uncertain. That when we can rest for even a moment in an image or a metaphor, that should be answer enough.