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Why Poetry? How Poetry? Where Poetry?

Today, I started my year as Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, HoCoPoLitSo. I visited two high schools, Glenelg High School and Marriotts Ridge High School. In both schools, I met with students who were well-prepared and insightful. I read a number of poems from both Gospel of Dust and Meeting Bone Man and also talked with the students about their own writing. At Glenelg, one student read a poem she wrote about another student she admired for her independence and courage. Her peers listened carefully and made some good comments too. We met in a former band classroom and it was packed with students from three classes. At Marriotts Ridge, I met with a smaller group who had some great questions about process and craft. They also made good observations. I started with a couple of the “Cool Disco Dan” poems and they shared some insights about the power of naming, the essential work of word choices to create a tone in the poem. In both readings, I also read a couple of newer poems, “For Gilberto Ramos” about a young Guatemalan boy who died in the Texas desert crossing the border. I also read “George Zimmerman’s Options.” I think it’s necessary for me to read that poem everywhere. We always have choices.

I’m building these readings and discussions around three questions: Why Poetry? How Poetry? and Where Poetry?

As to the question Why Poetry? I’m a firm believer that poetry has healing properties. It sometimes confronts us with a hard truth, which can be painful, but which ultimately can be healing too. I also believe that poetry reveals our common humanity. It connects us to others and makes the connections obvious and rich. Poetry disrupts the idea that we’re all worlds apart. I also think poetry brings beauty into the world by slowing us down. It shows us that “how” we do things might be as important as “what” we do.

When it comes to How Poetry? I keep it simple. I think a good poem can do three things. First, it says something. I know there are poets and others who dismiss this idea, and I respect their opinion. But I think it’s crucial that a reader, after some work, should be able to understand what the poem says. I love some poems just for their language. But most people are not going to love and remember a poem when they don’t know what it means. Once a reader understands something about a poem, that reader can extend the work of the poem into what it might mean in the life of the reader. In my experience at least, the poems that have helped me are poems that speak to a part of the human condition. I know what they’re about. Second, poetry needs surprising language. It’s the anti-cliche. The best poetic lines or phrases always surprise, the language bends, maybe breaks, until we see something anew. Third, good poetry moves the world toward kindness. Good poetry helps us. It gentles us. It might rile us up in the short run, but it aims to help the world become more kind.

All this makes Where Poetry? an easy one. Poetry should be everywhere. It should be in public places like streets, signs, libraries, stadiums, parks, buses, trains, churches, mosques, synagogues, bars, and restaurants. In Takoma Park, Maryland, right near Washington, DC, there are signs around the downtown area with poems on them. This is a simple nod to the essential role of beauty in our public life. But poetry shouldn’t just be a decoration either. The wisest office-holders, presidents, mayors, senators, all value poetry. The ones who never read it are the ones we have to worry about. Poetry should also be in our private places: our homes, bedrooms, letters, emails, even on our bodies. I’ve seen more poems as tattoos in the last couple of years. I’m not ready for that myself, but I like the idea.

I finished each reading and discussion by urging the students and teachers to explore the work of Howard County’s first Poet-in-Residence, Lucille Clifton. I told them a bit about her life and then I closed by reciting her beautiful poem “blessing the boats.” I hope that sent them on their way with some inspiration. You can check out that poem on the Poet-in-Residence page of this website.

Big Thanks today to the folks at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, especially to Kathy Hurwitz who got me everywhere on time, signed in, and ready to go. Our next event is on November 11th with visits to  Homewood High School and Long Reach High School.

Photo Credit: The Washington Post

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