Friday, April 16, 2004
What Is Poetry Good For?
I was standing in line with my daughters, waiting to plunk down ten or fifteen dollars for warmed-over movie theater popcorn and alarmingly expensive cups of sugar water, when I heard a nearby child speak about the movies. She was almost as tall as my fourth grade daughter, and she was talking to a boy an inch or two shorter than she was. The girl said, “Once you’ve seen the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then this movie’s not so bad.” I never found out what movie she had in mind, but most of the ones showing that day were plainly inappropriate for a nine-year old. A lot of folks were there to see the skin flayed off the back of the Son of God, and maybe these youngsters were too.
Hearing that little girl talk was one of those occasional moments when I find myself thinking that our society is like a person with an undiscovered tumor – everything seems normal, but actually we might be profoundly ill. How can a lobby full of Michiana adults hear a child nonchalantly accept all that violence and not turn around to reflect in horror on what she said? When we accept our country’s crazy weaknesses as normal, then we start to lose track of the words that should be powerful clues to our highest values. In fact, given how easily our leaders sometimes pass off slogans and half-truths as news, maybe as a society we no longer know what to make of language at all.
So where are the healing powers we need to bring our words back in line with our values and our lives? Since it’s National Poetry Month, I’d like to propose that a portion of what we need is already here among us, provided by the poets. We know that the arts are meant to wake us up, so it makes sense when Franz Kafka says that “literature must be an axe to break the frozen sea of the heart.” It’s not a far leap from there to the words of American poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote, “It is difficult // to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day // for lack of what is found there.”
So what’s in American poems that can break the frozen sea of our hearts and give us the news of our lives and restore rich meaning to our most important words? How does poetry do that? This is a great week to try to answer that question for yourself, since St. Mary’s College is in the middle of a wonderful new poetry festival. Highlights of their packed agenda include a reading by Ruth Forman and Claudia Mauro in Carroll Auditorium on Friday night at 8:00 p.m. and another reading by Richard Tillinghast and Emmy Pérez on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Haggar Parlor. You can call 284-4028 at St. Mary’s for the complete list of Friday and Saturday events.
My own favorite among the poets visiting Michiana this weekend is Gerald Stern, who is reading his poetry on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in the Wiekamp Hall auditorium at IUSB. And at the Jewish Federation on Sunday at 7:00 p.m. he’s giving a reading and talk about poetry after the Holocaust. Like the St. Mary’s events, these are free and open to the public.
So what will Gerald Stern read on Saturday at IUSB? Will he bring out some of his songs of praise for the garden objects that tease him back to the sweetness of everyday life? Will he recite story poems about people who have grappled with the sometimes overwhelming forces of history that threaten them? Will he instruct us in spiritual kinship through one of his powerfully empathetic poems about dogs and other creatures? Will the music and the rhythms of his lines support the drama of his stories, the grace of his images, the emotion of his insights? Absolutely. He’ll do all that as he reminds us that we too share in poetry, its consolation, its exuberance, its lyrical energy, its music, its insight, its joy, which is part of our birthright as members of the human community.