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A defense of poetry in an age of spreadsheets

My new radio essay in which poetry spits on the asphalt in disgust and walks off…

I remember talking once with a high-ranking person from one of our area’s universities. Her training was in psychology, the field devoted to understanding the human mind. Somehow the topic swung round to poetry, and she said, “I don’t know why the university should be spending money offering courses in creative writing.” Along those same lines, you may have heard news stories from state houses across the land, where various leaders assert that public money should be used only for programs with directly measurable benefits. You don’t get the impression that poetry impresses those folks either. They must be thinking: you can’t pay the rent buying and selling poetry. In certain households, national poetry month must be seen either as a mystery or a joke. There may be radio listeners who love their NPR station but can’t be bothered with Garrison Keillor’s daily poetry episode. If we only knew the world through our bank statement, our company ledger book, or the front page of our local paper, they’d be right. In those venues poetry doesn’t matter much and American poets aren’t pulling their weight.

But poetry is among the oldest human arts; it is found in every society. Little children love the wacky jingle-jangle of poetry; in concentration camps, when brutal guards aren’t watching, gaunt survivors eke out lines of poetry; new lovers can barely keep themselves from writing poems, maybe for the first time in their lives; when someone dies, a mourner may be tempted to write a poem celebrating the beloved’s life. All these poetry fans must not have gotten the memo from the spreadsheet crew about the fatal limitations of the arts. Under florescent lights in air-conditioned offices, their spreadsheets turn gray and brittle, and dust gathers on their binders, while outside, poetry spits on the asphalt, turns up its collar and walks into the wind, chanting the names of the living and the lost. Given a chance, most people vote at one time or another in their lives for poetry.

And not because of the checkbook or the ledger or the breaking news, for those are not the only stories we want to hear about our lives. In a love poem he wrote late in life, William Carlos Williams addressed his wife directly with these words: “We have stood from year to year before the spectacle of our lives with joined hands. The storm unfolds. Lightning plays about the edges of the clouds.” Williams was correct: one thing we need to better know is the storm and spectacle of our lives. Because we live in the solitude of our own hearts, we need the spiritual nourishment of poetry. In that same poem, Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

For in poetry we nudge ourselves awake. A couple of weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night. There were voices outside. I pushed up one slat of the window blind and looked out. Several cars were parked around the neighbor’s house. I put on my robe and walked through the dark rooms of the house toward a south window. The last snow of the season was falling past the porch light in the shape of soap flakes; it seemed as though the smallest of diamonds had been seeded haphazardly across the blanket of new snow.

The adult children of our neighbor were saying goodnight, slowly, taking their time deep in the night, then starting cars one by one and heading off. For weeks they had been coming one or two at a time to the house, morning or afternoon or evening, sitting in hospice with their beautiful, strong mother as she endured the last stages of cancer. But this time they had all come at once and all stayed long into the night. Then they were gone, and one by one the windows of the house went dark. Outside, bare trees held up fresh snow in all their branches.

It was time, I knew, to write a card to the family; time to say a prayer; to think of friends; to listen with gratitude to the peaceful breathing of my wife there in the bed. It was time to try to sleep, or as good as any of these, it was time to write a poem.

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