The first time I remember hearing the word “poetry” it came from a family member who was making fun of poets. How dumb they were for thinking their words mattered. How silly they talked. How lazy they must be to just sit around and write all day.
“Why the hell would anyone want to talk about love and flowers and stuff all the time?” this person said with a Mississippi River wide smirk across a smug face. “It’s all just bellyaching and sappy stuff that makes people uncomfortable.”
For me it was an easy answer. I started reading poems and asked my mom to help me find good ones, and she did. I borrowed books from the library and absorbed all I could within weeks of that one disparaging comment about poetry, that I KNEW wasn’t true, even though I hadn’t read any when it was said.
…makes people uncomfortable. I was in.
I was always uncomfortable, and still am. In my skin, in my life, in my head. If I could show someone else how that felt, maybe I wouldn’t be as uncomfortable. Maybe someone else felt the same way. Then I found Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Jack Micheline, and the Beat Generation writers and I found out I was right. Everyone was uncomfortable and making other people uncomfortable by writing about being uncomfortable.
It took me years to realize that the uncomfortableness was due to a little known practice of feeling your own feelings in relation to other people’s feelings, or Empathy.
I was 8 when that all started, and 9 when I told my mother that I was a writer and I always would be. I have also been a number of other things. Several of them absolutely horrible things. I have been a drug addict. I used poetry to get and stay sober. I have been homeless. I used poetry to turn that around. I was an absent and terrible father. I have used poetry to get back into the lives of and communicate with my children.
Kurt Vonnegut once made reference to reading and writing being the most difficult things to do in life. We take lines and squiggles and make a language out of it that our brains can look at and make images from. Entire landscapes are painted in your head. Moments pulled from thin air into your mind because of words someone else wrote down.
I read several books a week, and I try to write for a couple of hours everyday, and if I don’t, I make up for it another day. I might throw what I wrote away, but I write. I might read terrible books, but I read. I feel the pain, sorrow, happiness, fear, anguish, love, and joy of every writer I come across. I feel, even if it is just me seeing how someone else is uncomfortable.
So, when the question is asked, “What is the importance of poetry in today’s world?” the question is more important than the answer. I don’t think it is an answer anyone can give to you. It seems almost a personal question on par with what religion or political party you belong to. If you are looking to become an activist, poetry can be your catalyst into the actual processes for political change in the Muriel Rukeyser and Amiri Baraka vein. Societal change has come about through the actions of poets like Maya Angelou, Alan Ginsburg, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to name very few.
Poetry has become intensely personal, almost exclusively. A lot poetry has a twist of the “I feel this way…” or “I have seen…” format, or is just a new take on those themes. That isn’t saying that those things are bad, or even unusable, or without merit, but that hasn’t always been the case. We have gotten away from the idea of poetry being about “flowers and love” like my family member said all those years ago, and expanded to a wide range of topics poets in the past never thought possible. There are no rules on a blank page, only the only ones you put on yourself. We have the poets of the past to thank for that.
I have heard and seen poems that have immediately changed my view of the world. I keep reading and writing in hopes to find that moment again, or to, even for one person or one poem, provide that for someone else. Writing helps me make sense of the world, and to find my place in it. I write because I don’t know what else to do. Writing helps me stay focused, stay sober, and stay aware of my role in the larger poem we are all writing together.
In the future, we have to be aware of the past. Be aware of all the work done by poets, and realize that not only did they write great work, but in context of their times they made a difference in more than just the literary world. As writers, or future writers, we have to try to do the same profound work in the context of our times, and strive to make change in ourselves and the greater world, the larger poem, around us.
We are at our most uncomfortable when we are vulnerable. We can reclaim own vulnerability by embracing the times when we are uncomfortable. Many writers, myself included, have used discomfort as fuel for the future fires. And as Cesar A. Cruz (not Banksy) said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”