Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why We Should Read Poetry---The Reason I'm Writing This Blog

National Poetry Month – April 1, 2009

"The poet does the cooking and even sets the table, but the reader must eat."
---Matthew Kaberline (at the risk of seeming pompous I’m quoting myself)

We’ve reached the second year of my experiment in bringing poetry to the digital masses on a daily basis. Now is a good time to define my expectations for this little blog of mine. So here it goes: I’m a sucker for routines. Comfortable and keeping us on track, routines make the world go round. Unfortunately, there are inherent flaws in routines. If we do the same thing day-in and day-out it will undoubtedly become stale. I'm sad when I think of the person who hits the snooze three times in the morning, finally gets up, showers, drives to work, completes a full work day, drives home, eats dinner, watches TV, and goes to bed---and this sums up not just a single day, but a multitude of days stacked together like children’s blocks. Contrary to how it sometimes seems, we are alive. Part of being alive is experiencing new things, which we can aptly define as learning. There’s nothing I love more in this world than learning. In examining the roots of learning we're bound to find thinking; strangely enough, thinking is one of the first things that abandons us in the midst of routines. So how do we reconcile learning and routines when they’re clearly opposites? And what do routines have to do with poetry?

In his masterful book "How To Read A Poem," Edward Hirsch references Emily Dickinson’s ideas on reading poetry. She commented that people should read for "soul-culture." Soul-culture? I assure you it's not a horrible band name or a super gelatinous hair styling product. Actually, Dickinson’s concept of soul-culture is elementary. Let’s think about the soul for a moment: it's the mysterious entity at the core of each person, it's the culmination of all our experiences and thoughts, it transcends the body to combine everything the body experiences, and it cannot be measured but it can be felt. Those are just a few of the varying definitions of the soul. And culture, well, that’s enlightenment, refinement, the artistic endeavors---high and low---which make us think. So to summarize: soul-culture is an activity that engages our mind, body, and soul in the essential process of learning, thinking, feeling, and questioning. I will be the first to admit that this idea of soul-culture makes reading a poem sound very intense, and possibly intimidating, almost as if the whole world depends upon it. Emily Dickinson was on to something!

A poem, or any piece of writing, music, film, dance, drama or art, should make you feel and it should make you think. It’s imperative that these two things are present in the reading of poetry, otherwise you might as well be reading a quarterly assessment of your 401K (Yikes!) or an advertisement for a pizza chain. My contention is that the thinking and feeling are not solely the responsibility of the poet. Of course it’s the poet’s intention to write with images, metaphors, and themes that will provide readers with direct access to emotion and thought. The poet has that responsibility, just as he or she has a responsibility to accurately (to his or her own perception) capture the subject they are writing about. Similarly, the reader is complicit in the act of the poem. The reader has carved a few minutes out of his or her day to be swept away by language, to be immersed in a world unlike their own, to be brought to the threshold of learning. The poet does the cooking and even sets the table, but the reader must eat. Eating, in this metaphor, is learning---another equally important form of sustenance. Simply put, poetry is not an art form you can complacently and indifferently participate in. Poetry is not turning on the TV to zone-out after a long day. Poetry requires a little effort on your part, but trust me that effort is worth it. My hope over this next month is that you’ll put forth that effort a few times and you’ll find yourself engaged in a pursuit that brings you meaning, that makes you think, that reminds you of memories or past recollections you might have forgotten, and that supplies you with a healthy dose of soul-culture.

---Matthew Kaberline

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