We Americans are living with an unprecedented absence of leadership. In the Deep South, we have lived with this void for most of our history, so we’re a little more used to it than the rest of the nation— but that doesn’t make it OK. In the face of Congressional deadlock, soaring national debt, secular/religious strife, rogue policy actions by state legislatures, mistrust of the police, declines in public education funding, exorbitant college costs, internet predators and trolls, crumbling labor unions, global warming, and an unceasing barrage of Law & Order re-runs, the Passive Activist series offers ideas for how ordinary people can create and implement positive change in our own lives. Movements are made up of people.
#3. Read poetry.
Poetry is one of the oldest art forms in the world. Its origins in oral recitation predate literacy, and many of the earliest poems that we know, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, are so old that authorship cannot even be determined. Poetry may have evolved over time, each successive generation with its own incarnation and stylistic preferences, but the fundamentals are always there: rhythm, nuance, insight. Human beings love poetry . . . always have, always will.
Yet, mainstream American culture seems to have relegated this important form of expression to the subculture of its stolid institutional supporters. Our perpetual stream of omnipresent digital media has music, drama, art and dance being utilized and broadcast far and wide . . . but poetry has left itself out in the cold. (However, poetry on the web did make The New York Times‘ front page recently.)
I could cite rationale after rationale for an interested reader to chase down – Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” or the AWP’s response to it, or the April 2014 Atlantic article “Why Teaching Poetry is So Important” – but in the interest of brevity, I’ll just say that, despite the debates about its relevance, people who actually understand poetry and what it does actually know that human beings value it. (If you want the devaluation argument, you can easily find one from a “job creator” of some sort or from a chamber of commerce-sponsored education program somewhere.) The simple truth is: poetry has very little “value” as a commodity in the modern American economy, but its real value within human nature is immeasurable, and the people who want us to ignore poetry are the ones who are more interested in us as workers than as human beings.
In this video, poets Jane Hirschfield, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Naomi Shihab Nye talk about why poetry is so important:
For those people who think about poetry as something that is too complex, over their heads, I propose that stylistic differences among poets old and new, foreign and domestic offer such an incredible range of choices that anyone – anyone! – can enjoy poetry. If Dante or Wallace Stevens is over your head, then read something more modern and accessible. I suggest that Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 book is a good place to start.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.