Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Poetry Is Nothing To Be Scared Of

At lunch, high in the northern Lebanese mountains, our cab driver and I waited for my friend to come out of the bathroom before continuing on to Khalil Gibran's grave. Next to our table the windows were open. Clear mountain air touched with spring and water came at us. It was cold, crisp and a relief from the dust choked air I had been living with in Kuwait City. Our cab driver turned his head toward the breeze, closed his eyes and began reciting a poem. When he finished he opened his eyes and smiled.

“You like poetry?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I can't imagine life without it.”

Testing a hunch, I asked him when he graduated college.

He laughed.

“I stopped going to school when I was fourteen.”

The Lebanese, especially Beirutis, are a well read people. Surprised as I was, I figured it to be a part of the culture there and this miraculous discovery could not be replicated back in the slums of Kuwait City where I lived.

I was wrong.

Two weeks after wandering around Khalil Gibran's hometown, I was back in Kuwait City, smoking sheesha at my local cafe well past midnight. I got into a game of dominoes with a group of Egyptian construction workers that I sometimes played with.

“What are you reading,” Samah asked me. I was negotiating my next move.

“Salah Al-Hamdani,” I said. The Iraqi poet.

“Oh he's good,” Samah said, “maybe great. But have you read Abdul Rahman Yusuf?”

“Wallah. Yusuf? He should be reading Aziz Abaza,” another man cut in.

For the next three hours a heated debate, one that threatened to derail the domino game entirely, raged about modern Arab poetry. Recommendations were passed my way, arguments turned to silences between friends. It is still one of the finest literary conversations I have ever had and I was the only man in the group with an education above the eleventh grade. And I was nearly shamed with my ignorance of some of the poets mentioned.

I wonder why Americans do not read more poetry. Why is it that the best conversations I have had about poetry---wild conversations that raged with love and honor and passion about poems---have usually been in foreign countries? And usually with people whom we would deem uneducated? Certainly I have had similar conversations here in the United States, but they are usually with poets, and they happen much less frequently than when I have lived abroad.

Prior to Islam, prior to oil, before American daisy cutter bombs, the Bedouin that roamed the Rub al-Khali judged the quality of a warrior on his ability to do three things: ride a horse, shoot a bow and arrow and speak in poetry.

Jimmy Carter wrote a book of poetry.

After World War I the French veterans that took to the road carried Paul Eluard's Capital of Pain around in their backpacks.

Remember that there was a time in this country when Jack Kerouac could appear on the Steve Allen show and perform with Allen riffing the blues on a piano along with him.

Why in America are poetry books so feared by the general reading public?

Part of it has to do with education. I was an English teacher for almost six years, both in public and private schools in the United States and abroad. In all that time, amongst all the different faculties that I worked with, there were only two other teachers that I worked with who actively read poetry. And yet, all of those teachers were required to teach it. I repeatedly witnessed students bemoaning the study of poetry in my own classes when I began my poetry units. I took this lack of enthusiasm to stem from bad experiences with poetry in the past. Seeing what my other coworkers were doing with poetry in their classes it is no wonder so many students learn to hate it. Between providing them with antiquated poems that they do not have the linguistic capability to understand, to having them check off accent marks above the words in a line, to reading them poems with a dull, slapdash enthusiasm born from their own lack of reading, English teachers across the country are murdering poetry.

Don't misunderstand what I am saying here. Classics should be taught and taught rigorously. Verse should be taught side by side with the techniques of prosody so that a reader can see more deeply what is happening within the poetic line. But, considering the decline in reading amongst students in general, these things should come after a student has been given the opportunity to simply enjoy poetry, to see it for all that it can be. If poetry were more a part of our daily lives it would make sense to touch the classics and prosody early in a student's education. After all, they would be getting the rest elsewhere. But they are not. And because poetry has been killed for their parents, or it is deemed too inaccessible, poetry is seen as something difficult or not worth their time, a sentiment passed down often unknowingly from one generation to the next.

There are other reasons for poetry's lack of love in America: badly written criticism, or good criticism in places of which the general public is unaware. A lack of public discourse on poetry in our media.

How sad life is without poetry.

For a short story writer or a novelist, reading poetry greatly helps expand the awareness of the possibility of words. The compression and intensification of experience that a poem requires is essential to understand when writing fiction: how else will you deliver an emotional punch to your reader without a compression and intensification of experience?

For the musician reading poetry will only deepen what can happen in a song, what can happen with rhythm. Check out the complete Chess recordings of Chuck Berry between 1964 and 1969. During this time he recorded multiple sides of his own poems. Berry has said in interviews that poetry is essential to him. Had Chuck Berry never fallen in love with poetry we wouldn't have had rock and roll. Imagine a world without “Maybelline” or “Johnny B. Good” or “Thirty Days.” I wouldn't want to live in it.

But for everyone else poetry has a special magic, something that is equally valuable for their lives. It will make you a better thinker, a better believer, a better lover. Not necessarily in the physical act, but in the overall sense of the word.

We shouldn't have to read because it will do something for us. Too often we expect some type of gain on our investment. Sometimes reading just for the pleasure of it is enough. And yet, with good poetry as with good music, art or fiction, there is always a return. There is always something gained. It is difficult to describe but it is always there. You can feel it.

And remember (to paraphrase Jarrell): poetry is written by a human being alone in front of a blank page.

That means it comes from a human being and is filled with love and anger and emptiness and the hard won memories of lives well lived. It is filled with joy and sadness, completion and stumbling. It is a very human art and because of that, critics and teachers are not necessary to understand it. If you have ever lived, if you have ever felt, poetry is accessible to you. Just take your time with it and remember that those very human things within it are carried to you rhythmically and with sound. Much like music.

I like the idea that the warrior was judged on his ability to speak in poems. There is a romanticism to it that expands the possibility of living. But then I recall the bar room toasters that were once so much a part of the night life here. I recall the cowboy poets riding their way across the plains. The sea shanties that were improvised as whalers took themselves across the world. The outlaw ballads that became bluegrass and country music. The blues born of field hollers and mule skinner work songs. Poetry has always been a part of us and it's time we stop letting people scare us away from it.

By: William Hastings