Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What does poetry do?

I spent the past weekend with a group of 75 poets, members of the Florida State Poets Association, meeting at a seaside hotel.  As I listened to these people read and talk, I asked myself, Why have they come here for this weekend?  What is the value of the work they do?

I was reminded of the line from W. H. Auden (often quoted out of context): "Poetry makes nothing happen"--in the sense that it does not drive the economy or the government. It survives beyond the world of executives. Yet, for those concerned with the inner life, poetry makes a great deal happen, and this has nothing to do with status, power or money.

One of Maria Popova's Basic Beliefs is "Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone."  Of course, like the assembled poets and their prizes, we who write and create want some approval, but that alone is not our goal. We do it because of love, because the poem must be written, and, as isolated poets, we need to come together with like-minded people to share in a community of appreciation.

Our keynote speaker was the noted poet Lola Haskins, who lives in Florida and England. She gave us a valuable overview of poetry in the Middle East, where poets are much more important than they are here in the First World.  The same is true in Russia and Eastern Europe, in fact, in many of the hurt cultures of the world. As my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, says, in numb cultures like ours poetry is not valued. It has only a small audience.

In the Middle East, I learned, illiterate tribesmen know and recite poetry, the way the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons centuries ago have done. I learned about the Mother of Palestinian poetry, Fawda Touqan, whose love of the land is expressed in her verse. Mahmoud Darwish, another Palestinian, says his action in the world, his work, is poetry.

There are statues to noted poets in many lands; in America, we put up statues of generals and presidents, mainly. Yet, as I discovered this weekend, poetry is alive and thriving, hidden amid the many other activities that dominate our media. It is alive because many people find their spiritual outlet in verse, because they care about language and feeling and sharing their unique insights with others, irrespective of money, status, or prestige. Bravo!

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