Poetry Matters

July 1, 1993

Poetry Matters

By By Christine Swanberg

By Christine Swanberg

Author and Poet

Have you noticed how poetry seems to be everywhere these days? Page through Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, and you’ll find an essay on poetry. Read AARP’s My Generation, and there’s an interview with Billy Collins, national poet laureate. Turn on The West Wing, and the title for the night is “Poet Laureate,” featuring Laura Dem wearing a poncho and funky shoes (because, of course, that’s how we poets dress, right?) An episode of ER a few years ago featured a young male poet (suicidal and fragile, of course) who somehow ends up in the hospital after an open mic reading (which always makes me wonder if there couldn’t be a new environmental illness, maybe Open Mic syndrome?)

For over a decade, we’ve been hearing about the infamous Poetry Slam, which features peppy and exhuberant renderings of uncensored “poets.” Marc Smith, who originated it in Chicago at the Green Mill and Get Me High Lounge has been on 60 Minutes (and in Rockford). On the sixth-month anniversary of 9/11, Mary Tyler Moore read a poem about September 11, written by a survivor, on CNN. And the point is that for some crazy reason, lately POETRY MATTERS. Yep, it’s been liberated from its exalted but stifled place in academia, and been returned to the people.

Poetry has gone mainstream. (Not that this hasn’t created a monster.) For about 30 years, thousands of small presses have swelled and ebbed, giving voice to the common folk of poetry as well as to its gentrifled cousins, the MFA poetry programs, and more recently BFA programs. This means that you can actually major in poetry writing now. This does not mean it will do you any

good in the real world, but by golly, you will be writing poetry. And lots of it. And some of it will be decent and make its way beyond the open mics to some decent journals. Some of it will win awards—and there are hundreds of poetry contests, ranging from vanity presses, which publish anyone who pays the writer’s fee, to prestigious prizes such as the Pulitzer.

Even Poets and Writers magazine, which used to have a cozy “proper pauper” feel about it, is now corporate. In spring, you can read about the hundreds of writers’ conferences, where nearly anyone can go for a literary experience (which is like taking a bath with Lava soap; you get really, really clean, though you might chafe a little, if you get my drift…) Last week I heard a wonderful concert at the Coronado. The RVC Chorale, Community Chorale, band, and orchestra performed as one number a beautiful poem by Walt Whitman. I found this no less than glorious, because the poem was free verse and took on a swelling chant, which I’m sure would have pleased Walt Whitman to no end.

So what’s going on? What has created this groundswell of poetry? Why have the last few decades seen both a grassroots movement and an urban movement in poetry? Most of us remember being taught poetry as an analytical art, almost a “hide-and-seek” approach. What does the poetry really mean? You remember that. Eventually, poetry could be understood only by those who would take the time, reading and re-reading each poem. Poetry used to be rhymed. But look what has happened. With hundreds of rhymed lyrics, music on the radio (not to mention elevators, health clubs, places of business, even on the telephone), poetry’s place as a rhymed medium lost its lustre. It simply wasn’t needed to fulfill society’s appetite for rhyme and rhythm.

With the advent of psychology, Freud and Jung ushered in an age of psyche searching. Why do we behave the way we do? How does the mind work? What is the collective unconscience?

Poetry responded to that by becoming a vehicle for psychological depth. Let the songs on the radio be superficial, but let poetry probe the depths of the human psyche. Poetry became an authentic rendering of what humans actually feel, not some sugarcoated, cute rhymed version of it but the real stuff. Though I would be the first to admit that a lot of modern poetry suffers from sophomoric angst, I would also be the first to point out how authentic and real that angst is in an era which has done its best to dehumanize us.

Add to the mix the horrors of 9/11, and you can see why poetry really matters these days. Humans have a need to express honestly and uncensored what we feel. We don’t have to like it all, but I, for one, am glad that we have come to a place where poetry matters. It matters more than keeping up with the Joneses, buying a new SUV, phony political correctness, misguided politics and misguided religion. We are hungry for the truth, and poetry is one place we can find it. We are hungry not for poems to analyze but for poetry that speaks to our experience. Indeed, we are hungry for the experience of poetry. Poetry is an antidote, a balm, a clear voice, and a shared rendering of what matters to us.

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