Today poetry seems dressed in Victorian clothing at best. For some, American poetry begins and ends with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and the like. That’s how irrelevant and antiquated some see it. People say poetry has lost the street cred it had in earlier times, perhaps most recently in the 1950s with the Beat Generation.
American poet and professor Major Jackson asked a few of his colleagues and contemporaries if American poetry suffers from an abundance of artistic dignity and not enough street credibility in a parisreview.org essay. The answer he got was that it’s quite possible.
Jackson asked a prose-writing colleague why she has a disdain for poetry, and her answer was, “It’s too elitist, like walking through a beautiful forest in which I know not where to look, much less know what I am searching for. If I don’t get it as a reader, then I feel like an idiot ...”
Sven Birkerts, another writer and Jackson friend and contemporary, explained that writers work in an age of great distraction brought on by society’s materialistic compulsions.
“The race is busily standardizing itself and turning its attention outward: sciences, technologies and the mass processing of information are the order of the day. Truth for the time being is what can be measured, calculated or found on some instrument ... and the inner life is given its due only when the strain of imbalance sends a crack zigzagging through the outer shell.”
There’s a highbrow argument afloat that rap lyricists and songwriters such as Bob Dylan are nonliterary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rap is poetry and so are Bob Dylan lyrics, as they speak to the street and its sensibilities. It connects with what is going on in and around our lives and not just writing pretty and smart for prettiness and smart’s sake.
Poetry is like jazz in that it can only be felt by the soul. People who say they can’t understand jazz or poetry are listening too much with their ears and brain and not with their inner being. It requires letting something get in deeper than a text message, a tweet, a new gadget or TV show.
Jackson found during editing of “The Best American Poetry 2019” the challenge was to “locate poems that by their sheer force and virtuosity of their making renew the bonds between reader and poet. I sought poems that braved human connection, poems that battled the inertia of our daily routines and fixed modes of thinking.”
Well, before I became a newsman, I wrote poetry. Not only did poetry serve as a catharsis for my youthful angst by allowing me to put my feeling into words, but it also allowed me to share those feelings and relate them to others feeling the same moods and emotions. In that way, I feel poetry writing helped me become a better news writer by enabling me to see more nuance and subtleties in my subjects.
It also helped connect me to other local poets and writers, which let me know I wasn’t weird for thinking the way I did.
For the past several years I got away from poetry. And it felt like a part of my soul was missing.
A few months ago, I started attending the Thunderbird Sessions, a poetry outlet for local poets hosted by Jay Claywell and held the first Thursday of the month at Unplugged. From listening to Jay and other local poets, I realized that poetry is not dead at all and it does relate to everyday life, just on a deeper level. Those writers were able to share their deepest pain and fears about death, rape and other tragedies and connect with listeners on an almost spiritual level. Nothing antiquated and out of touch there. It’s people connecting with others on a much deeper level than a Facebook post of a cat video.
What it showed me is that poetry is alive and well and much needed today. Poetry can help connect us in a way and see another point of view as well as look deeper into ourselves, which can only enrich our lives by make our society better.
That’s what poetry has done and still can do.