The Soul Medicine of Poetry

Given the incredible pressure lockdown is putting on people, it’s no wonder many of them are turning to poetry for a sense of meaning in their cramped, constrained lives. Hopefully this renewed interest in what had become all but a dead art to the masses will be spurred on by the reading of Amanda Gorman’s poem at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony. As an article in Britain’s Independent explained: “There is a reason why reactive poetry—and occasion poems, in particular—are striking such a chord right now. Poems are a monument to our emotional history. In times of crisis, hope is in short supply; while feelings run high and low at an increasingly unmanageable rate.”[1]

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written movingly about the vital role of poetry in our lives.

Already in Canada a poetry hotline has been set up in Vancouver, the Poetry Phone, available 24 hours a day.[2] It’s not a new idea—something similar was done in New York City during the 1980s with poets such as Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, John Giorno, and others. (A selection was published on record but is incredibly rare.) But it speaks to a deep-seated need in people for language that goes beyond the partisan and divisive, the mundane and ordinary. Some years ago, during yet another American political crisis, Susannah Herbert, director of National Poetry Day, said: “At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets. Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.” In my favourite go-to volume of poetic aphorisms, Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts it plainly: “Poetry the common carrier / for the transportation of the public / to higher places / than other wheels can carry it.”[3]

Gorman has achieved a rare feat in going on to be a featured artist at the Super Bowl, with an audience of up to 102 million people. As most poets can attest, usually you’re lucky if you can fill a room with 50 people for a poetry reading. The last time something similar happened was when Canadian poet Shane Koyczan read his poems at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, though probably not to quite as large an audience as the Super Bowl enjoys. It’s arguable whether such hot-button moments in history tend to last where interest in poetry is concerned. Still, it certainly does no harm to a young poet’s career; henceforth they need never fear a lack of audience for their work.

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Though when you compare Gorman’s age (22) with the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, Robert Frost, who was 87 at the time, one suspects the choice of such a young poet is itself a political statement. British columnist Mary Harrington, in her article on Gorman’s presidential reading, raises important questions about the ‘state of the art.’ Harrington’s title covers a lot of ground: “Slam poetry’ is all rhyme no reason.” She is concerned that “the digital-era update of ‘slam poetry’ seeks to purge language of any reference to literary tradition… as problematic repositories of whiteness.”[4] I also see this as the misguided ethos of “burn everything from the past,” as if somehow this culture knows better than all the thousands of generations that came before. Surely the accumulation of knowledge over millennia is what has given the human species its distinctive edge—destructive as that often is—over all other creatures on this planet. For John F. Kennedy’s inauguration an elder poet was chosen, a master of his craft. Choosing a poet at the very beginning of her career, so early in her development as an adult, seems odd. What do any of us know yet of life in our 20s, much less the craft of poetry? A dear friend of mine was fond of saying, “A poet at 21 is 21. A poet at 40 is a poet.”And still learning—at 50, 60, 70, 80…

Gorman’s naïveté reveals itself in her lines: “But one thing is certain: / If we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy…” Charitably speaking, such an idea is evidence of someone too young to know any better. A course in world history is in order. At her age I knew nothing about history either. Marrying might with ‘right’ has been the rallying cry of dictators throughout history. As the great historian Arnold Toynbee once explained: “An end does not justify a means. Means and ends must be ethically consistent. This principle is borne out by experience. It is psychologically impossible to do right at stage two by deliberately doing wrong at stage one. If one is wrong at the outset, it is impossible to reach a righteous goal.”[5]

Still, political implications aside, let’s hope the spotlight shone on Gorman spills over onto other poets, and Godspeed to her as well. In every statistical report released so far about the impacts of lockdown, the Covid crisis has caused record levels of depression, suicide, a huge surge in suicidal ideation among youths, and collateral deaths due to lack of access to medical care for other conditions. So we’re in need of some serious soul medicine, something to feed our starving spirits. As Georgetown University poet Carolyn Forché said recently, “It’s a time for strength, endurance, survival and care for others. In times of peril and danger, we turn, I believe, to poetry for wisdom, for secular prayer and for the language of acknowledgement of our condition.”[6]

As I’ve written before, poetry—both the reading and writing of it—has been a great comfort to me throughout my life. Poetry has helped me survive periods of depression and despair just as reading from a holy book does for others. I’ve always considered poetry the most spiritual of the arts. As the Indian mystic poet Osho wrote: “Poetry contains all: it is love, it contains prayer, it contains meditation, and much more. All that is divine, all that is beautiful, all that can take you to the transcendental, is contained in poetry.”[7]

It’s an important reminder in a culture that has seen the steady marginalization of the humanities in favour of STEM disciplines. Poetry not only articulates with precision of language that which we wish we could have said ourselves in as few words, it also raises our consciousness. By employing figurative language, whether through simile, metaphor, analogy, or mythic references, it develops our capacity for abstract reasoning and creative solutions. As Maya James, a Georgetown University student living in Columbia, Maryland, puts it: “With poetry, I feel like I’m activating different parts of my brain that I don’t really get to use every single day. So it just feels good for my well-being to read it and write it.”[8]

Poets tend to be empaths, so in addition to exercising parts of the brain most of us seldom get access to, it can help us develop compassion. First century BC Roman poet Juvenal summed it up: “Nature confesses that she has given to the human race the tenderest hearts, by giving us the power to weep. This is the best part of us.”[9] Poet Gary Snyder further develops the connection between poetry and compassion: “The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.” At such a dark time in human history, such illuminated moments are precious.

NOTE: I’ll be posting my poem The Day After Covid next on this blog. Watch for it!

REFERENCES:

[1] “First the inauguration, then the Super Bowl—Amanda Gorman is leading a poetry revolution,” Nikita Gill, The Independent, February 8, 2021: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/amanda-gorman-super-bowl-inauguration-poetry-b1799297.html?utm_content=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1612817816

[2] “Downtown Vancouver now has a poetry hotline,” Brendan Kergin, Vancouver is Awesome, February 7, 2021: https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/vancouver-news/downtown-vancouver-now-has-a-poetry-hotline-3361454

[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art, New Directions, New York, 1975 (2007 ed.), pp. 74, 75.

[4] Mary Harrington, “Slam poetry’ is all rhyme no reason,” UnHerd, February 17, 2021: https://unherd.com/2021/02/slam-poetry-has-no-rhyme-or-reason/

[5] The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York & San Francisco, 1976, p. 211.

[6] “Poetry Power: Faculty and Students Turn to Art Form During Pandemic,” Georgetown University, April 28, 2020: https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poetry-power-faculty-and-students-turn-to-art-form-during-pandemic/

[7] Sean Arthur Joyce, “Bring Out Your Dead Part 2,” chameleonfire1 blog: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2020/12/16/bring-out-your-dead-part-2/

[8] “Poetry Power: Faculty and Students Turn to Art Form During Pandemic,” Georgetown University, April 28, 2020.

[9] Quoted by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, HarperOne, 2000, p. 96.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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