On the Reason for Poetry (And the Analog Resistance)

April is National Poetry month. (Did you know there was such a thing?) To celebrate, I’ve asked some friends to join me in answering the question, “Why Poetry?” (Next week’s piece, for instance, will be by the lovely and talented Hilary Sherratt). I hope you’ll join us in the conversation. And if you say you aren’t the “poetry type?” Give it a go this month. See how it feels.

*****

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers
after a hard days work. The doctor said
it was her high blood pressure finished her.

~John Ciardi

1.

I sat in the rustic pew on my front porch, a copy of Selected Poems:John Ciardi cracked to the poem “Aunt Mary.” The pew was a reclaimed piece, salvaged by my mother from some going-out-of-church sale in northern Louisiana. I’d salvaged the verses from a local used bookstore in the Ozarks, reclaimed the piece and gave it a home between the works of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

It was a quiet evening, one in which the first warm winds of April were sweeping down the lane. The birds hopped from branch to branch, the joy of Spring in their songs. Squirrels chased each other through the muddy front yard, through the tender grass shooting from winter’s dead zones. I pinched the pages between thumb and forefinger; there is nothing quite like the yellowing leaves of a good book of poetry, the rough-fibered, tactile, analog pages.

It could have been any poem, really. But it wasn’t. It was this work, “Aunt Mary,” about the writer’s aunt who’d passed into the next world on the flames of twelve red peppers. Mary was a woman who “loved us till we screamed,” who was in the family of the broken,

“in which one dies of twelve red peppers,
one has too many children, one a boy friend,
two are out of work, and one is yowling
for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door.”

There is a truth about family in the verse. I sense it, but it hides beneath the surface.

2.

It is April the 1st, and the dust has barely settled on last week’s discussion regarding whether same-sex couples should or should not be employed by World Vision, a entity which, as best as I can tell, has a singular non-profit purposes–care for the impoverished. Just days ago, this was the issue du jour. World Vision’s hiring policies were in question, and the debate took to the hallowed halls of the internet. We all gathered there, there, the family, some of us watching as others debated with humility, and still others–the championed prize-fighters in the room–slung wholesale accusations across the aisle. One side accused the other of being Un-orthodox (a idea without definition), and their equal opposites accused the more Orthodox of being unloving (an ideal without definition).

Nuance be damned.

I watched as one sat yowling for another (offstage) to open the bathroom door. The one behind the door yowled back.

3.

Why poetry? (And for today, let’s relegate this question to “why read poetry?”) This is the grand question.

Many have an affinity for poetry, though they’d likely not recognize it as such. In high school, did you roll the windows down, let the wind blow through your hair as you screamed every word to “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Did you make mix-tapes for your boyfriend? Did you scrawl self-angsty lines in a fifty cent notebook? Perhaps you didn’t, but I did (though you may substitute “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for “The Love of God,” because I was a good Baptist boy).

In poetry, I’ve always found the artistic medium that gives the freedom to better understand the world. Good poetry conveys layers of meaning and nuance, unpacks truths in surprising and understated ways. Good poetry is like a diamond, its many facets drawing the reader into the mystery at its heart. It entices me, makes me dig into its language for meaning.

I am a word-miner, and poetry is the mineshaft. It’s why I read. I hope to find the grand golden nugget one day. I know it’s there somewhere.

4.

On April the 1st, I sat with the lines of John Ciardi, he mourning the loss of his utterly human aunt. I rubbed the pages between my fingers as I read the closing lines,

…At once I wept Aunt Mary
with a real tear, forgiving all her love,
and its stupidities, in the palm of God.
Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye
of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem.
–Let every man choose his own persuasion,
I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

I wept Aunt Mary too, and all the very real lovers of this world and of God who are only doing the best they know how, who are only espousing their best understandings of mysteries.

There was no comment section at the bottom of the poem, no way to tweet the verse to the rest of God’s green earth, or to spout an opinion about it. There was only me, the poem, the internal weeping, the birds, the squirrels, and the pew. There was only a prayer for all of us, the yowling children. There was only the understanding that we’re all here together, reflections in this mirror dimly. There was the sense that unfolding the nuance of words can only be achieved by this sort of Analog Resistance.

This is why I read poetry. It is a sanctuary from the myriad cacophonous violences that occupy this mainframe world.

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