Printer Friendly

In the beginning was the word: demystifying poets and poetry.

We are all poets, and every poem is an interpretation.

The poet is no more mysterious than is the scientist. One is in love with words, the other with numbers. For either, it's the beauty of the formulation that counts, not its acceptance. For Einstein, E=m[c.sup.2] was pure poetry. That it could change the world was in distant second place to the breakthrough in understanding it encapsulated. For Robert Frost, the imagery of two roads diverging in a wood was an equally elegant formula for describing life. The thought that schoolchildren might be repeating the lines somewhere ages and ages hence probably never crossed his mind.

We are fond of saying that poetry has the power to awaken the senses, but these two examples suggest that we ought to credit the poet, at least, with somewhat more modest objectives. The acceptance of a poem is profoundly anticlimactic; as W. H. Auden so poetically observed: "The publication of a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." The formulation is everything; if the poem resonates with others, that's a bonus.

It seems highly unlikely that Emerson was the first to challenge us to seek out our inner poet, but he probably said it best by insisting that our poetry will come out in other ways if we choose not to write it. In fact, the ability to live our poetry seems vastly superior to just committing it to paper. While we may deny our inner poet, we cannot deny our feelings, our senses, and our emotions--the very intangibles that make us distinctly human and distinctively individual. Those things are the essence of life as well as the building blocks of poetry.

If we are all poets, living our poetry, then it follows that poetry is all around us. If you haven't noticed any today, try putting on the glasses of your inner poet so that you might enjoy the poetry in a falling leaf, a random act of kindness, a passing cloud, or a tax refund. Just in the past few hours, I witnessed three acts of living poetry that are not easily converted to the written word.

On the morning news, I heard a report of a dog rescuing a litter of kittens from a burning building. This was followed by an item about a mortgage buyer, at auction, giving the home back to its tearful owner. Later, while kayaking on the White River, I watched a grandfather teaching a child to fly fish and then how to gently release his catch. Such living poetry almost defies written interpretation, and yet, each contains the paradoxical seed of a great poem.

Just as a painting or a photograph is not the real thing, a poem is always an inadequate interpretation of living poetry. As with the painting, the written poem contains no small amount of artistic license. The poet has no obligation to accurately portray the scene, only an artistic obligation to be interesting. Like any good interpretation, poetry is an attempt to artfully portray a story, provoking interest, while seeking to be relevant, focused, and informative. I particularly like Max Bodenheim's definition because it neatly addresses all of these criteria: "Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the wind." In these nine words, Bodenheim demonstrates two additional principles: those of economy of words and organization of thought--the right word in exactly the right place!

With the possible exception of prehistoric rock etching, poetry may well be humans' first attempt at interpreting their world. For centuries, in the absence of a written language and readily available writing materials, the poet/bard, sometimes using musical accompaniment, provided our primary interpretations of life and history, using sagas that were provocative, interesting, relevant, focused, and artful. The principles of interpretation, not articulated until the mid-1950s by Freeman Tilden, were firmly in place in the ancients' job description for their poets. The Roman poet, Horace, writing in 65 BC, called poets "the first teachers of mankind." Now, more than 2,000 years later, poetry remains unconstrained and undiminished by today's still limited tools of communication technology. In the current resurgence of interest in poetry, we may actually be seeing a backlash to the growing impersonality of modern communication.

Poetry is intensely personal because it is fundamentally emotional, calling on our senses and getting us to think in different ways about the accepted and the commonplace. It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes are known for locking up their poets or, at the very least, keeping them under surveillance and labeling these basically peace-loving artists-with-words as dangerous to the state. For the oppressor, words are dangerous because they promote thinking, and while words cannot be purged, word-smiths can. Most of us would agree with Rudyard Kipling that "words are the most powerful drug ever used by mankind." And then along comes Pablo Neruda, who nicely puts that power in perspective by pointing out that "peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread."

"I am not a teacher, but an awakener" says Frost. The poet is not content with limiting sensorial exploration to the traditional five of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Our senses of peace, place, and purpose are fertile fields for poetry to explore, as are intuition and the sense of wonder, because they allow us to look inside ourselves and discover not just our inner poet, but our inner nature, our beliefs. To allow ourselves an open mind to examine the paradoxical in our beliefs may be the ultimate sense of freedom--freedom to discover one's self.

Some of our less physical senses are no easier to turn off than are the senses of taste or touch. Along with senses of beauty and danger, our sense of direction (our inner compass), the sense of time (our inner clock), and the senses of balance, motion, and distance all work to keep us out of trouble as we literally and metaphorically create and walk the tightropes of our lives. Spidermen, indeed!

The collection of senses connecting the inner self with the world around us, often curiously labeled common sense, provides endless fields for poetic exploration. Without, at least, a sense of humor we'd be hard pressed to deal with the often bizarre situations that the world throws at us. A sense of appropriateness is invaluable in countless settings where the dictates of order, civility, behavior, proportion, and protocol define social acceptability. In fact, our sense of appropriateness has been one of our richest sources of both humor and poetry.

Over time, we develop complex senses of justice and honor as we maneuver among the land mines of fairness, respect, loyalty, pride, ethics, and responsibility. Our sense of worth guides us in making judgments about needs and wants, and cost versus value. And our sense of compassion naturally reaches out to embrace love, caring, sympathy, empathy, and sadness. Just imagine how many times the injustice of unrequited love has diminished someone's sense of worth over the millennia.

In poetry we find a safe haven for dealing with the paradoxical nature of life. Our human inconsistencies are wildly evident throughout our common senses. For example, the senses of pleasure and guilt seem to have neatly teamed up to fuel two of the world's largest economies: entertainment and religion. And, our sense of the spiritual or supernatural allows us to cope, at least in superficial ways, with the phenomena that science has yet to explain--the sacred, the metaphysical, the mystical, and the magical. If God could create the perfection of something like a tree, why bother with fools like me (with apologies to Joyce Kilmer)?

Our many senses exist at remarkably different levels of development and respond to an infinite variety of settings, making us truly sensate and, hopefully, sensible beings. It is not just our sense of beauty, but every one of our senses that exists in the eye of the beholder. But "poetry is something more than just good sense," said Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That something more is how we feel about what we sense, feelings that range from indifferent to passionate. The poet creates "weapons of mass instruction" by combining two common household ingredients: words and passion.

If poetry does have the ability to awaken our myriad senses, it surely does so by recognizing the paradoxical in life and laying it bare with passion and clarity. And, if poetry is to fully use its ability to interpret life, it must be available, it must be demystified. It must be appreciated and valued for its emotional logic, just as we value science for its analytic logic.

Emotional logic--the realization that humans can be simultaneously subjective and objective, that there are truths that are satisfying to both sides of the brain--may well be what poetry does best. The appeal of poetry is the appeal of words, and the appeal of words is the appeal of the imagination. It is tempting to substitute the word power for the word appeal, however, power is not the right word simply because poetry is to power as waves are to the shore. Power, for the poet, would only be a burden. Poetry does not play in the power arena; it is the voice you hear after the arena grows silent, when the players have left, when the light of dawn reminds us that the arena is not the real world we live in.

"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

--John F. Kennedy
 The Environmental
 Poetry Workshop

 Welcome, come in and join us,
 but do not close the door,
 and watch your step, for as you see,
 there are lots of broken pieces
 scattered on the floor.

 Please don't mind the clutter,
 Nature's first impression
 tends toward disarray,
 but as you grow to know her
 you'll discover that's just her way.

 We find that words paint useful
 to help maintain her fragile fixtures,
 so, take a book down from the shelf,
 then examine something broken on the
 Now, look deep inside yourself.

 We never fix just pieces,
 our concern is for the whole--
 for warnings and for clues
 from all across the land
 of where we failed to pay our dues.

 We don't hide flaws under coats of paint
 or clear the streams of toxic taint.
 We can not scrub the air, or heal a bird.
 Our only tools are conscience, care,
 and the plain unvarnished word.

 We examine all the puzzle's pieces.
 We don't apply just salve or glue,
 or give out gentle hints,
 for you can't put broken things together
 with quick repairs and splints.

 Our depictions may sound harsh,
 the words unduly stern,
 the barbs unfairly hurled;
 for what could simple poets know
 beyond their simple world?

 It doesn't take a poet to see the world's
 all the poet knows for sure is this:
 it's not two worlds at all--it's
 only one
 and its very, very, small.

(From Voices from the Park)

Will La Page is the author of Voices from the Park, and A Park is A Poem on the Land, available from, and Parks for Life, from
COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association for Interpretation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Inspiration
Author:La Page, Will
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Previous Article:Assumptions.
Next Article:Interpretation By Design: Graphic Design Basics for Heritage Interpreters.

Related Articles
Writing the Elephant: Five books on Modern Poetry.
Robert Penn Warren and the poetics of (im)purity.
Denise Levertov: a poet's pilgrimage: her work led her to celebrate the transcendent.
Wanted: your poetry!
Poetry can help reach out across any barrier: DIPF chief.
I need a pint - for better or verse.... TheDailyPreview RSC OPEN DAY Stratford.
Survivor: Wom-po island--a review of Letters to the World, an anthology of women's poetry written, compiled, and edited by members of the Wom-po...
The power of the spoken word.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters