An Addendum to “Let’s Get Some Things Clear”

A little over six months ago I wrote a post about Whitman and his exposure to slavery and how it affected his writing. I ran across some new information about Whitman that I thought was pertinent to that discussion:

The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.

The problem in this is not so much that Whitman thinks races as we know them will disappear (although his language is harsh), but that he places value judgments on the races. The idea that some races are minor is scary.

So Eden Sank To Grief

I have an odd fascination with things like sand castles and ice sculptures
I assume it’s because I usually find myself dedicating time to things that will only last a few moments
I guess that’s why I fall in love with things that will never love me back

-Ruby Francisco, My Honest Poem

I want to write about religion, but I’m not very good at that so I’m going to write about poetry instead.

I like poetry. Some of you invariably do, too. I used to write a blog of poetry. It existed here. Then I got rid of all the poetry and started this blog. People liked the poetry, but it was nowhere near as popular as this. People would tell me my writing was beautiful or that they respected my words. No one was ever inspired.

I think most people, if forced to choose between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, and The Collected Works of John Donne would pick the first two every time (I might, too!). Unlike some, I don’t think this reflects a spiritual decline in society. I think poetry must answer for this lack of interest.

First, there is a growing amount of bad poetry. Back in John Donne’s day, it was difficult to publish poetry. There weren’t a lot of presses, and even if you were a great writer, you probably spent a couple of years just circulating your stuff around family and friends. And if you were a woman like Mary Wroth (I call her the 17th century Nicki Minaj), you spent many years circulating your stuff. Then, maybe, after you died, someone would get it in his head (usually this was a male thing) to publish your work in a folio together. Obviously, you wouldn’t start this long arduous process if you hadn’t practiced and studied your craft and knew what you were doing.

That’s not how it works today. Today, anyone can start a blog. Bad poetry gets published all the time. If you want a physical book, you can self-publish. It costs nothing to publish an e-book. Bad poetry is everywhere. The noise is loud. We turn to novels and movies and television shows because even if they are poorly written, at least they have a driving plot. Poetry usually doesn’t. It depends on its words.

Second, poetry is meant to be acutely relevant. Sure, the poets of olde wrote lofty poems inspired by women or intense epics meant to excite (although, I would argue that epics are still alive and well in the form of novels and movies). But, many of the poems from long ago that we still study today were written in response to a current event, a friend’s death, a wife’s passing or leaving.

I don’t think we know how to write relevant poetry anymore. The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame here (although, what can’t we blame on the 24-hour news cycle). It’s difficult to take the necessary amount of time writing about an event when it’s just going to be dusted away in a couple of days anyway. Also, I think it’s difficult to write about experiences while incorporating everything that constitutes modern living. If I write a poem that simply mentions iPhones, it will either be taken as a condemnation or a celebration of them. Unfortunately, poetry desperately needs to mention iPhones to stay current. We shouldn’t start writing about iPhones. We should write about the things we’ve always written about – nature v. man, death, life, love, heartache, loneliness, war, anguish – in short, human emotion. But human emotion is greatly wrapped up in technology now and our poetry should reflect that.

Third, we don’t have time for reflection. Poetry requires space. Lots and lots of space. Poetry is not easy. It’s not something you can understand just after one reading. And I think many of us don’t understand why we should put in the time when we can read things that we can understand immediately. The truth is we don’t know how to discern. If we knew what was bad poetry and what was good poetry, if we knew that when we put the time into a poem, we would get a higher truth, I think we would be more likely to reflect. But we don’t know. So it’s our fault and poetry’s fault. We should create space for it, and poetry should honor that space.

Poetry is meant to inspire. It’s meant to illuminate something bigger and better than ourselves. That’s why we can’t lose it. Poetry is life. That’s what it means when we say a sunset is “poetic.” It means that the beauty inspires us. We can’t lose the language to say that.

I think religion is a lot like poetry.