Poetry deserves different perspective

Dr. William Kumbier- Professor of English and Philosophy

Dr. William Kumbier- Professor of English and Philosophy

Dr. William Kumbier

High on a ridge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I’m sitting in a warm post-and-beam barn that once belonged to the poet, Robert Frost. The barn stands only a few yards from a farmhouse where Frost lived and wrote; together, the house and barn make up a center for poetry known as the Frost Place. It’s still early this August evening but already in the mountains’ shadowfolds dusk is descending, the distinctive green, blue and white of mountain, sky and cloud over Mounts Lincoln and Lafayette already giving way to heather and indigo. More and more people cluster in the barn’s glowing honeycomb, the buzz of their conversation growing louder and more animated; soon it is almost impossible to find a seat among the 50 or 60 folding chairs scrunched into the barn. Then, a familiar figure with a geyserfroth of beard quietly steps onto the barn’s platform stage, welcomes the audience and introduces the first poet who will be reading that evening. Within seconds after the poet begins to speak, those gathered in the barn appear caught up in an attentive, utter silence.

Less than two months later, I find myself on a Thursday morning in Missouri Southern’s Webster Hall auditorium, along with a couple hundred students, faculty and others from the Joplin community. Though the audience is larger and more diverse than that of the Frost Place, I sense the same hum of expectation. We are gathered to hear a performance/reading by the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose poetry I have known since I was in high school. I look down at a photocopied sheaf of Yevtushenko’s poems and remember how struck I was then – and still am – by the boldness of his lines, the freedom with which they are deployed across the page, like terraces or steps leading to ever wider, broader con

ceptions or how they sprawl, unwind, move and shift, each turn revealing some new angle on their subject. Again, just minutes after the poet begins to recite a new prose poem, we all are listening, intently, straining to hear, through the husk of his Siberian accent, what he has glimpsed of the world’s truths.

Those among The Chart’s readers who know me may be surprised I am using this opportunity to write about poetry rather than about issues many regard as more immediate and pressing: the war in Iraq, presidential politics, the future of our nation and it’s increasingly uncertain place in the world. For many, reading, writing and listening to poetry, if they are thought of at all, are thought of as apolitical or unproductive activities, activities in which English professors, English majors and others with nothing better or more important to do indulge. Poetry may be beautiful but, when weighed against the urgencies of work, business, health care, family responsibilities or religion, it may seem expendable. I would suggest a different perspective.

I and many others I know who have been open to the possibilities of poetry and let poetry work on us have found, first of all, that, far from taking us away from the things and concerns of the world, poetry can take us to the heart of them. It can do this partly through the poet’s choice of subject matter, which for many practicing poets can be very far reaching, ranging from the old standbys like love and death to the latest news: Yevtushenko, for example, read a devastating poem he had just composed about the slaughter at the Russian school in Beslan. More important than subject matter, though, is the fact poetry’s medium is the language we use everyday. Of course, just because poetry uses words and material drawn from our common experience does not mean poetry is easily accessible or comprehensible, as anyone who has felt lost or uncomfortable reading or hearing poetry will affirm. That is because poetry works also through challenging the assumptions, conceptions and beliefs we share through language by shaking up, rethinking, recreating that language, or, as Ezra Pound put it, always “making it new.”

I am not speaking here only of poems that preach or press a message, whether those poems of social commitment are well or poorly crafted. We will always need, whether our culture admits it or not, the prophetic, dissenting voices that sound through poetry. I am speaking, rather, of all poems that call us to confront and contemplate unexpected connections, to rethink what we mean by what we say, mainly because they compel us to deepen the value of language itself. Anyone who reads the daily news or anyone subjected to the daily onslaught of the media knows how quickly language can be debased or how soon we can become used to clichés and expressions that come to mean little or nothing: “awesome” is no longer awesome, “cool” is no longer cool. The best poetry fiercely resists those tendencies, refusing to let our words lie comfortably, again to use two expressions from Yevtushenko, at “room temperature … sort of.”

Major Jackson, one of the poets who read at the Frost Place this year, spoke of that place and its nourishing of poetry as a “sanctuary against the madness of election year and the harm and misuse of language in the cause of rhetorical one-upmanship.” He added, “The pre-emptive war our country has undertaken in our name, I believe, has done a number on our interior lives, that part of us that feels and intuitively knows that something criminal and wicked is happening. Poets are in the business of life and creation, memory and celebration, tenderness and reconciliation.” I would add that they are also in the business of challenging, provoking and disturbing us to think, feel and imagine what we couldn’t without them, sometimes critically, sometimes sympathetically. Honestly worked poems enrich the texture of our experience, urge us to face realities we don’t always face and, not infrequently, envision new worlds beyond them. That is how poems always matter.