I want to talk about why I believe that poetry, the love of my life, is a canary in the great coal mine of our world.
When I was a kid, I came across this fragment from a Keats poem:
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
It was the phrase “a wild surmise” that caught my attention. These three words created meaning in a way that the rest of the language did not. Somehow my mind was able to apprehend something it couldn’t explain: a wild surmise.
In speaking of these two kinds of perception, the French poet Paul Eluard wrote, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Poetry knows this. So do children, who have no trouble moving back and forth between poetry and the more literal language of daily life.
Here’s a poem by Laura Janoff, aged seven:
Sometimes I get caught
in a time breeze
and think about
when I was little.
Once, when I was gardening with my granddaughter Sarah, who was then six, I was fooling around, scolding the weeds for growing among the flowers, and she said, “Yeah! If you don’t get it, maybe you should go back to plant school.”
Many adults who don’t “get” poetry, or who feel bored or intimidated by it, must wonder why poets don’t write more straightforwardly, in what Marianne Moore has called “plain American that cats and dogs can read.” What has happened to the confidence and ease with which they were once able to swim in the river of words? It’s not news that our culture tends to reward the kind of mind that’s logical, rational, and able to retain and assimilate vast amounts of information, while it mostly ignores the kind that’s emotional, anarchic, intuitive, musical, and sensual, in short the kind of mind that writes and reads poetry. Whereas the intellect wants to organize, categorize, analyze, and come to conclusions, the
mind of poetry wants to float, absorb, experience, and feel, without straining after explanation and “meaning.”
The fact is, the complex experience of being human cannot be fully expressed in language that does not encompass both kinds of mind. We gather experience moment by moment, and it is precisely the illumination of these ordinary bits of perception that gives us the most immediate conduit into the consciousness of another. In the brief time that the mind occupies that otherness—or is occupied
by it—the voice we hear gives us a flash of insight into the essence of human life, and thus becomes, for an instant, what the poet Sam Hamill calls “the universal ‘I’ of the poem,” the painter Fred Thomaselli calls “the infinity inside,” and the poet Gary Snyder “the wild and original self.”
We live in an exciting, dangerous, and confusing time. Never has our planet been at greater ecological risk, or the need for global cooperation so urgent. We need minds that can move confidently and with empathy and understanding across cultural and linguistic boundaries, so that we can perceive our common humanity in every other person. Poetry is a vehicle for realizing that in an immediate, powerful, and intimate way. The poet’s mind and the reader’s mind touch in the poem, as in this one by a Chinese poet, Wang Fan-chih (translation by Sam Hamill):
When the rich pass proudly by
on big, smooth horses,
I feel foolish
riding my scrawny donkey.
I feel much better
when we overtake
a bundle of sticks
riding a bony man.
That’s from another world—the seventh century—but it might have been written yesterday. In it we encounter a complexity that’s instantly graspable but difficult to explain because it demands an irrational leap of imagination. All of us have this capacity, this beautiful yellow bird. Let’s nourish it, and keep it
alive for the sake of the planet and all of its inhabitants, none of which is immortal. The Zen master Joshu Sasaki-roshi said something that seems to me not only true, but of pressing relevance to America at the beginning of the twenty-first century: “There are two worlds. You live in both of them.”