By Roger Housden from Ten Poems for Difficult Times
Posted 12/15/18 | Updated 10/8/22
Poetry is a concise and elemental means of expressing the deepest of human emotions: joy, sorrow, grief, hope, love, and longing. It connects us as a people and a community; it speaks for us in a way few other forms of writing can do.
When I was in the process of moving to Manhattan in 2001, in the weeks after 9/11, poems appeared on every available wall in the city. Yet even though I was so aware of poetry's power, over the next ten years, while sitting alone in front of my computer, finishing up another volume in my Ten Poems series, I would wonder at times whether I was wasting my time.
After all, the world is in trouble. It has always been in trouble. Not only that, but we are often in trouble personally, too. Surely there must be something more useful, more pressing, to give my time to than reflecting on poetry? Couldn't I go start a project in Africa, or at least do some small thing to prevent climate catastrophe, start reducing my own carbon footprint, for example, and begin a movement to encourage others to do the same? But no; I wrote more poetry books, wondering all the while whether they and I were doing little more than making ourselves progressively irrelevant.
I knew better, which is why I kept writing. I knew that great poetry has the power to start a fire in a person's life. It can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world. You may never have read a poem in your life, and yet you can pick up a volume, open it to any page, and suddenly find yourself blown into a world full of awe, dread, wonder, marvel, deep sorrow, and joy.
Especially in times of darkness and difficulty, both personal and collective. To read or write poetry is a powerful, even subversive, act, and it is one small thing we can do that can make a very big difference.
It can make a difference because at its best poetry calls forth our deep Being, bids us to live by its promptings. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind, from our default attitudes and beliefs. It calls to us, like the wild geese, as Mary Oliver would say, from an open sky. It is a magical art, and always has been — a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors, and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dreamed of.
This is also why poetry can be dangerous: we may never be the same again after reading a poem that speaks to our own life directly. I know that when I meet my own life in a great poem, I feel opened, clarified, confirmed, somehow, in what I always sensed was true but had no words for. Anything that can do this is surely necessary for the fullness of a human life.
The word poet means a "maker" — someone who crafts language into a shape. The word maker has the same etymological root as the words matrix, and magic, and it's true that the sound, the rhythm, of good poetry is literally spellbinding. It lulls, it sways, it rises and falls, and our hearts and minds rise and fall along with it. Poetry literally entrains us into the energy, the mood, the vibration, even, that the poet conjures with her words and images. The subtler and more refined that energy is, the more it can raise us to the best that we are. That it does so is another reason poetry is so necessary today, when we need our best selves more than ever.
A hundred years ago, when Yeats was alive, the imagination was far more of a common currency than it is today. The imagination today is under siege. Our political leaders, steeped in doublespeak and alternative facts, have brought George Orwell's 1984 closer than ever. We are saturated with both false and genuine information and find it a challenge to tell the difference.
We are saturated with concepts and opinions that stream ready-formed from Facebook or Twitter, which siphon our attention into an abstract metaworld divorced from concrete reality. People engage less and less with the natural environment, less and less with each other in community, relying more and more for their experience on the received knowledge that comes on a screen or down a wire.
No wonder the imagination is in danger of shriveling to the size of a pea. Imagination feeds on the smell of old tree roots, on conversation, on barking dogs, on the cries of children. Poetry's fuel is the imagination; it uses the things of this concrete world for its material and then reaches down into the layers of meaning that any object or person contains. Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to a lemon, to his socks, to laziness, to a tomato, to salt, and more. Poetry shows us that not just the gods but the humblest forms in the world can reveal enough truth and beauty to fill us with praise and awe.
Our attention honors and gives value to living things, gives them their proper name and particularity, retrieves them from the obscurity of the general. When I pay attention, something in me awakens, and that something is much closer to who I am than the driven or drifting self I usually take myself to be. When I pay attention, I am straightened, somehow, brought into a deeper life.
Poetry takes a stand against the increasing homogenization of world cultures because it is the speech of one specific individual in his unique voice. The sweeping homogenization and commodification of everything may be one reason that there are more poetry festivals, slams, groups, readings, and creative writing courses than ever before. Poetry is the expression of one person's irreplaceable subjective sensibility, another name for which is soul. It is the creation of one sensibility, giving form to how it feels to be oneself and to see the world through one's own eyes in the most precise language one can summon.
Everyday language usually fails to do this well. But poetry reaches with its sounds and rhythms down below the realm of the conscious mind to awaken and nourish the imagination. Poetry is imagination's language, and as such, it is prophetic speech. In essence, what is found there is our deep humanity, which binds us in empathy for others, however different they may appear to be from us. In everyday language, we might say to someone, for example, "I feel sick," which doesn't tell the listener very much and doesn't allow her to feel very much. But the poet Robert Lowell says it this way:
I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell
Lowell makes clear the nature of his sickness; it is a sickness of soul, one that pervades the body. And as the poet Mark Doty observes in the essay "Why Poetry Matters Now," Lowell's sickness sobs, and the sobbing is accentuated by the twelve vowels in that sentence, the alliteration of the bs and the ls. All this makes the line thick and heavy in the mouth, Doty says, which is what sobbing does. Try saying it, and see what a mouthful it is. Lowell gives us the visceral experience, not just the information that he is sick.
Lowell's line comes from the idiosyncratic stuff of his selfhood — from the unique soul of Lowell. Someone else would speak to sickness in a different way. Here is Sylvia Plath on having a fever:
I am a lantern — My head a moon Of Japanese paper. My gold beaten skin Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
The metaphors come tumbling over one other. She steps out of her body, it seems, and makes of it something other — a lantern, which then becomes something other — a moon.
This is a long way from Lowell, but it's another world altogether from the blunt vagueness of "I feel sick." The difference between the two poets is one of voice. And by the writer's voice we mean the way the particular texture of subjective perception finds its way into speech.
Who knows how the image of a lantern came to Plath. She likely didn't know. Poems are a window into the soul because they honor the unknown, both in us and in the world. They come from the deep waters below the surface; they are shaped into form by the power of language and set free to fly with wings of images and metaphor. Imagine a world in which everything was already known. It would be a dead world, no questions, no wonder, no other possibilities. That's what my own world can feel like sometimes when my imagination has gone into retreat. I, like you, no doubt, have discovered that poetry is a phoenix I can fly on to return to that forgotten land.
Poetry uses words that are known to all of us but in a sequence and order that surprises us out of our normal speech rhythms and linear thought processes. Poetry uniquely combines imaginative power and conscious intelligence, inspiration and hard work, and its effect is to illuminate our lives and breathe new life, new seeing, new tasting into the world we thought we knew. Poetry bids us to eat the apple whole.
Poems like the ones in this book shake me awake. They pass on their attentiveness, their insight, their love of this broken world to me, the reader. We can wake up to the world and to ourselves in a new way by reading poems such as these — especially when we read them aloud, and shape the sounds on our lips and the rhythms on our breath — making us more fully human. The poet Jane Hirshfield says, "Whether from reading the New England Transcendentalists or Eskimo poetry, I feel that everything I know about being human has been deepened by the poems I've read."
John Keats speaks of this humanizing power, too, when he says, "Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a Remembrance."
That's all very well, you might say. Poems may be a humanizing influence, they may even carry us to the heights of spiritual insight and realization, but what have they done to shift the world's obsession with power, greed, and violence? What has a poem done to dissolve injustice? This argument has been rising and falling for centuries, but it is worth our notice that poetry and literature in general have been routinely banned around the world at various times because of their subversive influence.
If poetry and literature are humanizing influences, they work directly against those regimes and ideologies that restrict rather than encourage liberty and justice. Nazim Hikmet, whose poem "It's This Way" is in this book, spent eighteen years in a Turkish prison for his beliefs. Because poetry connects different worlds, different ideas, and different people and things, it generates empathy — empathy with others and with all living things. When, through a poetic act of imagination, one feels kinship with others and with all life, it is that much more difficult to oppress others; and that, in a tyrannical regime, is subversion.
Stalin tried to strip Russia of its soul with his death camps. Poet Osip Mandelstam restored that soul by reciting poetry to his fellow convicts and by writing about it in his journal. "Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances," Saul Bellow writes, "is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place — the foreground."
That, after all, is what politics is ultimately about — human feelings and the human form. Poetry can give a human face to our collective struggles and remind us that this hu-man world is not only broken, it is beautiful. That is what the poems in this volume do. There's a headstone in a Long Island graveyard — the one where Jackson Pollock is buried — that I think encapsulates the value and necessity of poetry in a world of sorrows: "Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving."
Roger Housden is the author of the book Ten Poems for Difficult Times, the most recent addition to his best-selling Ten Poems series, which began in 2001 with Ten Poems to Change Your Life. He offers writing workshops, both live and online, with an emphasis on self-discovery and exploration. Visit him online at www.RogerHousden.com.
Excerpted from the book Ten Poems for Difficult Times. Copyright ©2018 by Roger Housden. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Roger Housden has shown an uncanny ability to choose and discuss poems that strike at the core of readers' concerns and needs. In Ten Poems for Difficult Times, ten extraordinary poems, along with Housden's incisive essays, bring heartfelt insight and broad perspective both to our personal challenges and to our cultural and collective malaise.