What Does Poetry Mean To Me?
I write this essay from the Flint Hills of central Kansas on a much deserved reprieve. This comes to you on the last day of an extraordinarily hectic, trying and exhausting year. I sincerely thank the editors of poeticdiversity for the opportunity to write to you, the readers.
The question of "What does poetry mean to me?" will yield many answers from as many different minds that ponder it. I don't believe I can answer this in any complete sense. I find the most remarkable thing is examining how each person answers the question. What aspect of poetry will the response address? From what point of view will the respondent reply? All of these things are more telling about the person who answers than is the answer itself telling what the meaning of poetry may be.
I have been with the poetic community for a short time compared to some whose work spans decades. My induction was one of chance as I am not inclined to believe in any grand spiritual design. My ex-wife, who had first spotted the sign for open mic poetry at the Midnight Special bookstore on Friday nights, had suggested I try reading some of the few meager poems that I concocted in my graduate school years. This innocuous act became the impetus for a much needed outlet for me. As I would discover, many poets and writers had found their calling in a similar way. They would be just driven by the inherent desire of wanting to write.
At first, the notion of reading at the open mic was humbling. Many first time readers are full of pre-emptive disclaimer before they share work. Each time I see a new reader and they begin with a volley of self-effacing preamble, I smile knowing it was exactly the same for me when I first performed at a reading.
I have had the opportunity to get to know many performers and poets in the Santa Monica and San Fernando Valley communities. In venues such as the former Midnight Special and the Rapp Saloon, Santa Monica has been my home long before I ever thought to live there. I have the honor of co-hosting the Rapp Saloon which has remained an open venue to both new performers and our dedicated regulars alike nearly every Friday night over our five year history.
What I have found is that many poets are writers both in spirit and even by profession. Quite naturally, journalists, photographers, actors, song-writers, and even professional poets abound in the field. As many in the poetic community use the performance of the work as a means to accent their words and strengthen their impression, other art-forms such as song or image can often add new dimensions to the work. A fair share of lawyers, administration workers, social workers, and teachers are also found in the poetic community. This would make sense as these professions frequently work with the written word or the human themes that make for the rich subject matter that poetry.
I find myself among very few in poetry with technical backgrounds. Yet many don’t realize that people who work in the hard sciences often have musical or artistic hobbies. Perhaps stimulation or excessive use of one lobe causes the other to become active to achieve some kind of balance. I knew I had fallen into the same embrace of the non-objective, artistic world after I found poetry. Sharing a splendid moment with a group of friends, acquaintances and strangers gives me a feeling of satisfaction that my job didn’t bring. As often that narrow characterizations fail, it's often said that scientists and engineers are rigid, conservative and overly methodical. One would think that those practicing these disciplines which often require these qualities would not have any heightened sense of feeling. From my own experience, instead of creating a sense of alienation, poetry has been a place of fortuitous discovery and replenishment in both the social aspect and the mere solitary act of creating something new each time. I believe that poetry was necessary to save a part of myself that had languished over the years.
Among my fellow engineers, I have also found many have at least a passing appreciation for the spoken word if not a desire to participate. I think many times the only barrier to a wider participation by more diverse groups is social stigma of what poetry and poetry readings are like. The creative spirit seems to know no professional boundaries. The common thread appears to be something much more inherent to the soul of the individual than their chosen walk of life.
There is a genuine altruistic feeling I get in helping support the poetic community. Many loudly champion the freedom of speech and brand the poetry scene as the last bastion of open expression. Whether or not this is true, a place that offers a truly open artistic space for anyone (literally anyone) brave enough to stand before a group of people (from a handful to hundreds) and express what they have devised is something to be admired and nurtured. Often external things affect what the reading can allow by social custom such reading in a youth hostel or by economic considerations of the venue requiring compensation (paying cover) to use the space. But common to all readings I have visited is this central and core belief in loving the idea of open expression.
Some poets have expressed disdain or dissatisfaction with the performance aspect of poetry. I mean this: does a poet need to participate in an open mic or workshops or even show their work to anyone else at all? Can not the expression be passionate, insightful and clear even if written and left in solitude? Some poets and writers believe the strength of poetry and prose lies in the printed words. Although uttering one's work in a public forum is far from pre-requisite, art does need to be shared at some level for it to be appreciated for its existence. To not belabor an often acrimonious discussion regarding the relative importance of performance in poetry, I say that poetry unread is worthless. Like Schrodinger’s cat, it is alive only when seen and in a state of nothing before this moment.
Poetry is often compared to therapy. A great deal of work is direct expression of the writer’s feelings, often those of isolation, disconnection or disillusionment. Many psychologists use writing as a means of therapy to get their patients to emote or evoke the feelings within them that could be too difficult or painful to vocalize. The act of writing is sometimes thought of as a venting or an expulsion of feelings that benefits the mind by releasing things into the tangible sphere. Poetry can be biographical sketches of someone's life, sometimes an exaggerated view of an incident as a way of telling another secret pain or joy. Poetry is often about the most potent of emotions such as love, hate, alienation, and hope. I have often thought much of the best poetry has been written about the more positive emotions, but it's often more difficult to find these. I have often struggled to forgo the passive laments that frequent my mind and rather try to capture and render those few and dear moments of elation and joy.
Although some writers express themselves more creatively or more clearly than others, poetry is one of the most accessible art forms which explains why I am never surprised by how many people at some point in their life have attempted it. I think would-be sculptors and painters are more often discouraged than those who attempt poetry. If the sentiment is captured in the words or the resulting mood of the poem, then the author is rewarded. This is not to trivialize the task of doing so. To write well is something that requires practice and some discipline. Often the path to such reward is racked with fragments of failures, false starts and orphaned expressions. The evolution of the artist is spurred by the mutagenic effects of trial and failure.
It has been said that activism is an essential element to poetry. I believe this to be true only in the most general sense of the word 'activism'. Poetic themes are often about the essence of a large change such as expressing things like a manifesto or phrased as a warning against something, or even a flattering embellishment or a simple flight of fantasy. To support a cause or to endorse political action would be an overly restrictive definition of what poetry should explore. I think poetry should make a statement or leave the viewer with images or feelings that are inspired by the words. Poetry must be active in its scope to inspire, impress or depict that which the author captures. I once heard a poet comment that not enough political poetry is written today. I disagree with this notion as I believe quite an abundance of anti-establishment poetry has been written. I am disappointed more diverse viewpoints are not expressed in poetry, particularly in a time of widening political differences. There is great hazard in allowing only congruent viewpoints to flourish while contrarian views are derided and dismissed.
To me, poetry is art. Art offers something new to the mind and heart. The sense of new doesn’t have to be novel or even firsthand, but more of something that can be expressed or experienced differently. A distillation of emotion suspended in a frame of words. So to what end is poetry to be? As often paraphrased from other quotations, the journey is the destination. As the author is not a static object in the sense of how his/her feelings and attitudes will slowly or swiftly shift and grow in time, poetry is also something that is does not have a terminus until the author has relented by stopping the stream.