April is national poetry month, but a lot of people don’t know or care about it. Completely understandable. Many teachers introduce us to poetry as if it were a fine science. In so many schools we read poetry expecting scientific equations. Four stanzas with a volta somewhere is a sonnet and Emily Dickinson’s dashes must tell us something profound about life.
Poetry is difficult, elusive and inaccessible, or so many teachers make it seem. But the truth is, it isn’t. If you love poetry, you will learn to read it. Just like the cheese connoisseur knows brie from camembert and the football enthusiast understands what is going on during a game (I don’t), poetry takes time and commitment. But why read poetry?
I can’t give you a solid answer. My reasons for reading poetry might be wholly different from yours, but I think there’s meaning in struggling to do anything. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I also think that you should be a poet.
Why write poetry?
Why bury meaning in a jumble of sentence fragments, subjects without predicate and predicates without endings?
Because we don’t think in clear sentences. When I’m angry, a subject doesn’t appear in my head with a frustrated verb and a furious exclamation point. Poetry is the language of thoughts. While many think that poetry is alien and unnatural, but it is, in fact, the most natural thing. We think in poetry. When examining beauty we don’t construct branches of linguistic trees that flower to complete sentences. Our thoughts are a string of adjectives, nouns and the like. But somehow, just like poetry, it makes some kind of sense. For us, our thoughts sound beautiful. Sound and sense: the essence of poetry.
So why do I write poetry?
I write poetry because I don’t think I can believe in a God or gods. Or not at least the ones I’ve encountered in religion.
Instead of the hail mary, I’ll write a poem about hail and a tree named Mary.
Each time I write a poem, I try to imbue it with a message, a plea to whoever might take the time to read it to change something or look at something in a different way. But as Isaac Newton points out, the universe demands that actions be reciprocated. Each poem I write is a small catharsis, a victory over whatever idea cages me in a wrestling match of abstract thought. If a poem changes your mind, you can be sure that the poet also evolved somehow in the process of writing.
I don’t think we should be responsible to a god or gods. Just as we cannot see at every moment in life a light at the end of the tunnel, it is unreasonable to suggest that everyone has the ability to construct a fathomable God. I can’t. Instead, I hope that I can be held accountable to what I see every day: other people. I don’t believe hard empiricism can satisfy our desires for explanation or explain the unexplainable. There is an abstract essence that influences us in very different ways. I choose not to attune myself to understanding this essence. Instead, I choose to attune myself to understanding other people.
Each poem I write is a prayer to my audience. In the absence of God, the only place I can find solace is in the minds and hearts of both fond friends and the passing stranger.
So why read poetry? The poet presents her or himself to you in the rawest form, naked thoughts. As a poet I ask that you be my God and judge; tell me with your visceral emotions or academic dissections what you believe my intentions or what my message is. Listen to me.
I’ve spent paragraphs rambling about why I write poetry and why you should take the time to read it, but I guess at the end of the day, I write poetry for me. I write poetry instead of crying over spilled milk. I write so I feel better. Just like a nun might pray to God or a muslim to Allah for comfort, I bleed my thoughts out onto paper for calm.
Poem grant me the rhyme to explain the things I cannot change, the rhythm to explain the things I can change, and the inspiration to continue writing.
Can I be sure that my message will be understand or my work read? No, but the Christian and the Taoist seem to have just as much trouble convincing everyone that their deity(s) exist(s).
But seriously, you literally just spent at least 5 minutes reading this article, a short poem takes less than a minute to read. Read a poem, even if it’s not mine. Write a poem, even if you don’t think you can. Take a poetry class before you leave Princeton. (It’s no application now!)