To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.
— Emily Dickinson
Why I Read Poetry
So much noise from police helicopters in Tucson, the city where I live. Also F16s and military transports. Below them and around me the Birds of the Air: Eucalyptus Owl, Velvet Cardinal, Quail, Mourning Doves, a Yellow- Bellied Something, Sparrows and an Ominous Mesquite Hawk. Many nests of what seem to be the same. Something eats the newly hatched black-and-yellow butterflies. Thus the wing pieces I find on the asphalt.
These things mean the cruelest month, April, is here again, and April bears the dubious moniker of National Poetry Month. Create a month for an artistic genre and you have its lethal prescription. National Vitamin Month, National Tattoo Month — well, you get the point.
Yet poetry cannot be killed. It has no commercial value, no marketing appeal, little or no presence in the schools, and it isn’t widely read. Poetry isn’t popular. Yet it continues on like a slightly cool literary zombie. New MFA programs and new poets continue to surface and older poets keep going. Should poetry be a significant part of our reading lives? Is it necessary?
I say “yes.” Because poetry does things other literary genres do not (hybrids excluded here). Poetry – at least good poetry – uses language to create a reality that rises to the reality of experience. Think phenomenology. We perceive the world in ever-accelerating image streams. Poetry uses the language of perception and finds the ruptures, the cracks where associations and imaginative leaps shine through. Here we live the harder truths and find glimpses of our shared humanity.
As fiction is to storytelling, poetry is to singing. Like singing, it comes from the deep, high, imaginative, sound-based, spiritual, light and dark recesses of human experience. It is unaccounted for, it does not add up to the sum of its parts. Poetry resists intellectualism. As image streams change, poetry must also change. It is by nature the voice of our times.
Consider Frank O’Hara’s lines, written years ago:
I’m becoming the street.
Who are you in love with?
Straight against the light I cross.
And Matthew Zapruder, as he writes right now:
I see sad crushed plastic/
Everywhere and put/
Some thoughts composed
Of words that do not
Together and feel
A little digital hope.
Or these breaking echoes, from Ryan Murphy’s new collection:
Broken flowers of the bank machines
That light the sky
And you and you and you.
Much like mine, your despair. Also your job and trees and plastic and the pixelated screens inside you. Show me your kitchen, your war, your dictator, use the language of perception and I will inhabit the room. I am not the same person leaving.
To find language adequate to experience – to show us things we need to know in a way that, if we listen with the little brain in the ear, transcend the white noise of existence and lead us into the world of terrible marvels, of joy and sorrow and worse, the lack of – this is the work of poetry. The best poems give us a flashlight or at least glow-in-the-dark-bracelet we may use to blink back a message or partially make out the dirigible we’re pretty sure is radioactive and floating over us like a birthday balloon. I’ll take the smallest light. And that’s why I read poetry.
~Joni Wallace’s debut poetry collection, Blinking Ephemeral Valentine, was selected by Mary Jo Bang for the 2009 Levis Prize from Four Way Books. She lives in the Southwest with her husband and two young children.
Joni read from Blinking Ephemeral Valentine at BookPeople on Friday, April 15th, 8pm.
Excerpts from Frank O’Hara, Walking to Work, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara; University of California Press, 1995; Matthew Zapruder, After Reading TuFu, I Emerge from a Cloud of Falseness, Come On All You Ghosts, Çopper Canyon Press, 2010; Ryan Murphy, The Redcoats, Untitled (after Vija Celmins), Krupskaya, 2010.