Why Doesn’t It Matter?

by lizard

I started off writing about poetry here at 4&20 with a post that asked the question “Can poetry matter?” but the source material I used for that post sprouted from internal gripes within the American poetry world.

Here’s a better question: Why doesn’t poetry matter?

I believe rhythm and rhyme are foundational components in how we clever mammals communicate with each other. Kids already know this to be true, no need for explanation. But as we grow up and become these strange creatures known as “adults” many of us lose touch with the powerful pulse of language.

But poetry is there, throughout the recorded drama of human existence, echoing across the centuries.

*

This particular post came about because of another contentious exchange in the comment thread battleground. Immediately after that exchange, which included discussion about the continued stain on American jurisprudence known as GITMO, I pulled a collection of poems from Guantanamo, edited by Marc Falkoff, from my shelf. This very short poem is from a now released prisoner, Siddiq Turkestani. This is from the intro to his poem:

Siddiq Turkestani is a thirty-three-year-old ethnic Uighur raised in Saudi Arabia. In 1997, while traveling in Afghanistan, he was abducted by members of Al Qaeda and tortured until he “confessed” to plotting to kill Osama bin Laden. He was imprisoned by the Taliban at Kandahar until 2001, when U.S. intelligence personnel visited the jail. He told them his story and was promised a quick release. Instead, he was eventually sent to Guantanamo and held for four years on accusations that included being associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The military determined that he was not an enemy combatant in January 2005 and he was released from Guantanamo nearly six months later.

Here is his poem:

EVEN IF THE PAIN

Even if the pain of the wound increases,
There must be a remedy to treat it.

Even if the days in prison endure,
There must be a day when we will get out.

*

If empathizing with tortured foreigners is too difficult, then imagine being stashed away for seven months in solitary confinement for 23 hours every day. Imagine you are an American citizen who, in the capacity of serving in the military, let your conscious get the better of your impulses toward self preservation, and (allegedly) leaked the ugly intestinal tracts of American imperialism. Imagine that.

*

Poetry transcends all this bullshit. Beautiful fragments of language go back through the centuries, providing this phenomenal lineage to connect us to the memories of what happened behind us, whispering hints about what waits down the road ahead.

to end, here is beautiful bit of verse from the poet Muriel Rukeyser:

Sings: There is much to fear, but not our power.
The stars turn over us; let us not fear the many.
All mortal intricacies tremble upon this flower.
Let us not fear the hidden. Or each other.
We are alive in an hour whose burning face
Looks into our death, death of our dear wish.
And time that will be eating away our flesh
Gives us this moment when blue settles on rose
And evening suddenly seems limitless silver.
The cold wind streaming over the cold hill-grasses
Remembers and remembers. Mountains lift into night.
And I am remembering the face of peace.


  1. Turner

    Thanks for the posting. I think poetry is important but I’m not exactly sure why. The best poem about the place of poetry in the world, or one of the best, is Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”

  2. Ingemar Johansson

    I what he learned during his stay was the English language and good prose then it was worth it.

  3. JC

    Without poetry music cannot become a song…

    Lyrics rule, and lyricism is just another form of poetry. Shane MacGowan of the Pogues is one of the best!

    If only for that reason, poetry does matter! No need to debate the negative.

    Here’s one of my favs I’ve learned to play this year, very apropos:

    The Wake of the Medusa
    by Jem Finer & Shane MacGowan & the Pogues

    The guests are stood in silence
    They stare and drink their wine
    On the wall the canvas hangs
    Frozen there in time
    They marvel at the beauty
    The horror and despair
    At the wake of the medusa
    No one shed a tear

    Sit my friends and listen
    Put your glasses down
    Sit my friends and listen
    To the voices of the drowned

    In the moonlight’s ghostly glow
    I waken in a dream
    Once more upon that raft I stand
    Upon a raging sea
    In my ears the moans and screams
    Of the dying ring
    Somewhere in the darkness
    The siren softly sings

    Out there in the waves she stands
    And smiling there she calls
    As the lightning cracks the sky
    The wind begins to howl

    The architects of our doom
    Around their tables sit
    And in their thrones of power
    Condemn those they’ve cast adrift
    Echoes down the city street
    Their harpies laughter rings
    Waiting for the curtain call
    Oblivious in the wings

    The casket is empty
    Abandon ye all hope
    They ran off with the money
    And left us with the rope

  4. It ain’t poetry until Garrison Keillor reads it. Then it’s profound.

  5. Turner

    If there’s a problem with what passes for poetry these days, it’s with the confessional stuff. There’s an awful lot of inauthenticity in it, a lot of posing.

    I think good poetry is about something other than the poet’s revelations of his eccentricities.

    There’s a lot of “Look at me. Aren’t I an interesting person who’s had all sort of off-beat, even shocking, experiences.”

    • Very high correlation between great poets and manic depression (bipolar, we call it now.) Check our Kay Jamison Redfield’s “Touched with Fire”, or this link:

      http://www.pendulum.org/information/information_famous_poets.html

      • Turner

        I checked the link. If you take any profession, say lawyers, you’ll find a similar percentage of S, SA, H among them. I see no reason to assume that these symptoms of mental difficulty aren’t common to all people at about the same rate.

        Poets with mental difficulties express them in their works. The rest of suffering humanity suffer quietly.

        • Turner

          I don’t mean to suggest that good poets express their difficulties directly in their works (the way bad confessional poets do). I mean that mental problems sometimes can be inferred in their works or that their biographers have note them.

          Samuel Johnson fought mental illness all his life but never expressed it directly in his works.

        • She’s saying that the correlation is very high, significantly higher than other professions, so much more so that she decided to write the book.

  6. Quest

    Poetry matters. Without it there would be no questions. Poetry asks questions to which the answers are seldom there, often changing with the reader and the time in our life.
    Poetry matters, and I am glad for it.

  7. ladybug

    If art matters, the art of words is right up there. Artists’ incomes suffer in tough economic times, but creativity and innovation seem to surge. Tough gig these daze without a state teaching position.

  8. some poetry always matters….

    http://www.poetry-archive.com/e/love_song_of_j_alfred_prufrock.html

    poetry has never been what the words are about…
    poetry is poetry to each individual because the words seem to sparkle and explode in your mind with unique meaning.

    art is about nothing except art.

  9. poetry matters like the leaves of a tree matter. without it we are barren and naked, without it we are the beasts of the field.

    these days poetry doesn’t matter because we are barren and naked, because we are the beasts of the field.

  10. lizard19

    thanks for all the interesting comments.

    i think poetry is suffering from something that is effecting more than just poetry: too much noise.

    from a literary theory standpoint, we’ve reached a sort of end-of-the-road location, having thoroughly passed through modernism and post-modernism into a sort of fractured aimless place.

    there have been lots of different responses to this situation in the poetry world. for the new formalists, it’s been countering the influence of free verse, partly because the innovators of free verse have now become the literary establishment, and us poets love rebelling against the norms of the dominant establishment.

    for language poets like Ron Silliman (i highly recommend his blog), it’s been a tireless promotion of their agenda in competition with something they call the “school of quietude”.

    but these factional disputes and contentions are really only shared by poetry insiders, the functionaries of the institutional poetry world where poetry too often goes to die in boring obscurity.

    in popular culture poetry is more alive in music lyrics and the flood of language that flows from talented hip-hop artists (as opposed to rap, which is corporate swill).

    as for my own work, i’ve followed the advice of the professors who told me good writing derives from extensive reading, and i think they’re right. it’s filled my own style with echoes and influences that i’ve incorporated into a sort of mosaic approach to writing.

    more on that later…

    • The Polish Wolf

      I agree with the sentiment that poetry is indeed very alive outside the ‘poetry world’. I also think that poetry, even that left unpublished, done by the students I work with helps them a lot, and the lyrical poetry they listen to allows them to feel more connected to someone they don’t know through common experiences and a mutual understanding of languages.

      My only question is whether being corporate means being swill. Is it necessarily accurate or fair to judge a poet by their patron?

      • lizard19

        to answer your question, i wasn’t talking about poetry, i was talking about rap, and yes, it’s accurate and fair to judge the mainstream corporate rap game as having appropriated the positive power of conscious hip-hop, replacing it with the misogynistic crap that perpetuates the greed-is-good gansta’ mentality.

  11. lizard19

    i’m a big fan of collages, and have put together a few wonderful arrangements of images ripped out of their original contexts and placed in juxtaposition to other images to create new relationships and meaning.

    one of my favorite collage artists is Jess who incidentally was the partner of one of my favorite poets, Robert Duncan (as an interesting side note, before dedicating himself to art, Jess worked on the Manhattan Project).

    this October i started a long poem with the idea of including bits of verse and other “found” scraps of intrigue, and its humming along. the Muriel Rukeyser selection is just one of those bits of verse (i’ve included song lyrics and online comments as well).

    i may include pieces from this long poem as it seems appropriate, like this little scrap of rhyming i composed for Haiti:

    DEAR HAITI

    we don’t care about your cholera
    and we don’t know no Aristide
    no we don’t care if what’s killin’ ya
    is bacteria in dirty streams
    because long ago you slaves got wise
    and violently broke your chains
    and though the earth may shake
    and your sad shacks break
    our neglect will keep you tame

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Why Doesn’t It Matter? […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Why Doesn’t It Matter? […]

  3. 3 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Why Doesn’t It Matter? […]




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