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Why Poetry?


"The reformer ... is a poet, a creator. He sees vision and fills the people with their beauty; and by the contagion of his virtue his creative impulse spreads among the mass," Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).

"And I think one of the great potentialities of poetry is that while it moves on the surface with image and color and motion and sense, it develops not an exposition, finally, but a disposition, that is the whole poem finally is there," A.R. Ammons (1926-  ).


Why does poetry persist? When did it begin? There is no easy answer to these questions. Poetry has been around for centuries. The greatest of epic poems pre-date the English language, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written by Homer approximately 2,800 years ago. The fact that both of these books continue to be translated and published today stand as a testament to poetry's foundation in humanity. Thousands of years ago, men chipped at stone to carve crude outlines of bison, trees, birds, and themselves. Was this the birth of language, of the literal thing being represented in a two-dimensional form recognized and understood by others? Did others take it upon themselves to improve the forms, perhaps abbreviate/minimize them, and align them in a particular that pleased the eye - and perhaps the muse?

For many centuries, poetry kept language and narrative alive through its oral roots. People would gather in common areas and a person skilled in memory and delivery would recite exotic and diverse tales, often composed by men and women no longer alive. Common to these tales was the flowing cadence of rhythm and the resounding predictability of rhyme, which both served to aid memory. Though we may not have recited them in years, many of us could, if prodded, share songs and nursery rhymes from our childhood. This is the same principal at work.

Beyond its utilization as a memory aid, poetry served another purpose: it expressed emotions and ideas. Poems became self-contained worlds, where laws and rules could vary among them, and language could be elevated or altered at the whims (or sweat) of the creator. An attention to diction, sound, and dozens of other variables (including image, color, tone) could translate into a finely crafted work. Perhaps that poem was meant to instruct a lesson much like a parable. Perhaps it was meant to express fondness for a loved one.

However, poetry also has a tradition of resistance. Although it can express beauty and impart wisdom, it can also spread hate and ignorance as easily as it can invigorate the downtrodden to take arms and fight. Many great Latin American writers in the early 20th Century have been able to capture the plight of the people at the hands of a merciless government.

In an age where words are trademarked and created out of corporate necessity, language paradoxically appears to have become a low priority (English teachers paid half what postal workers make; newspapers written at sixth-grade reading levels by reporters with eighth-grade mentalities), while also being held in high regard (books sold at record levels, with many, albeit not enough, by good writers). This is not new. The sky is neither being lifted nor falling.

Poetry is found throughout most religions, shares common elements with song and other forms of art, and continues to be an active part of human activity. There is no simple reason why. For one person, poetry (reading or writing) may be an activity that frees the mind and spirit. For another, poetry is a chore that must be dealt with for a particular grade, or in the case of a writer, a particular advance (though I doubt there are too many of the latter—poets who abhore the craft as well as advances being offered to writers of poetry).

Like many types of art, poetry records rather than defines a particular culture. As commerce and technology progresses forward, there will be those left, not behind as much as in the lower ranks, collecting bits of debris and fashioning them into something we recognize as novel and creative. These are artists, writers, and poets. In the 20th Century, (as in the Homer's time of 800 B.C.), poetry exists and will continue to do so.



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