As I write this from my home in Minnesota, the landscape here is snowy beneath a gray sky. It is quiet indoors, cozy, just the sort of space in which to contemplate things that matter. Hence, a perfect sort of day to think about the uses for poetry.
I run into a lot of people who consider what I do – reading, writing, editing creative work – a relatively unimportant thing. My husband, a scientist at a major university whose research contributes to the overall health of horses and dogs, gets a lot more kudos. And yet, when something tragic happens, an act of violence or a senseless death, or when there is a once-in-a-lifetime celebration, people turn to creative expression to find solace, hope, joy, reflection.
People turn to poetry.
Like other creative work, poetry has important use beyond that which we learn in school. Yes, it can be excruciating for someone to be forced to learn meter, rhyme, lines of verse from another era that seem to be irrelevant today. It can feel like a waste of time to shape words into a shred of clarity when there are diseases to be cured or children to raise or wars to be fought. But when a poem appears at just the right moment, with just the right sentiment, people hold it close to their hearts and use that verse to validate a part of their own experience.
Poetry proves we are in this world together.
One of my favorite poetry books is Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989). This collection, written when Carver was dying of cancer in his lungs and his brain, is full of the ordinariness of life yet transcends that ordinariness on every page. These poems get to the heart of what I’m talking about. Carver cut cleanly through his own language to arrive at the essence of what was important in his last months. These are not syrupy or melodramatic poems; they use what’s at hand to illustrate the depth of Carver’s love for his partner and their life together, as well as to honor what transpired in years past.
Here’s an example – Sunday Night (page 53):
Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers.
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
For me, this piece embraces what’s there and evokes a sense of gratitude. The reader draws the conclusion. Carver provides the details, the challenge to “make use”.
Another example – My Wife (page 31):
My wife has disappeared along with her clothes.
She left behind two nylon stockings, and
a hairbrush overlooked behind the bed.
I should like to call your attention
to these shapely nylons, and to the strong
dark hair caught in the bristles of the brush.
I drop the nylons into the garbage sack; the brush
I’ll keep and use. It is only the bed
that seems strange and impossible to account for.
What I love about this piece is the way the details illustrate absence, how much is said without resorting to cliche or blame. The end of a marriage has been distilled to this matter-of-fact and yet powerful flash of reality. Universal emotion. Ordinary language. Poetry of daily life, pain, love, endings.
Not everyone agrees that Carver’s poems are any good – in fact, there was quite a bit of argument over whether he could actually be called a poet (see the Poetry Foundation’s bio of Raymond Carver for more information here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/raymond-carver) – but his poems are poems that I use. They are poems that I have turned to when I seek clarity or solace. When my father died, one of the poems that I read and reread was Carver’s Late Fragment (page 122):
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Simple, elegant verse. A distillation of feeling that offers a shot glass full of powerful emotion. Poetry to be sipped. Poetry to be used.
What use do you make of poetry?