By krista schwimmer
Recently, a neighbor said something about poetry that truly touched a nerve – one of those fiery, explosive nerves that when shaken, keeps quivering for a while. I was lamenting how many of my current friends do not read poetry; he replied, when asked why, that it was because poetry only meant something to the individual writing the poem, not to anyone else. He insisted that he had actually read poetry to come up with this idea.
Well, dear Beachhead readers, imagine how stunned I was! In fact, I was so stunned, I did not come up with a retort at the time. So here is my reply now.
Poetry is one of the most powerful of all genres. There is clear evidence of this fact by some of the lives of history’s famous poets. Take the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who was so loved in Communist Russia that even Stalin would not kill her – only some of her friends and family! A visionary poet, Akhmatova wrote:
Why is our century worse than any other?
Is it that in the stupor of fear and grief
It has plunged its fingers in the blackest ulcer,
Yet cannot bring relief?
Westward the sun is dropping,
And the roofs of towns are shining in the light.
Already death is chalking doors with crosses
And calling the ravens and the ravens are in flight.
(from “Selected Poems”, trans. by D.M. Thomas)
Or the poet, Pablo Neruda, also a poet involved in politics and war, who wrote the epic poem, “Canto General” about South America. This same man wrote such beautiful love poems that at one point, when he was asked to read one of these poems at a gathering of hundreds of people, the audience recited the poem, from memory, back to him because he did not have that one with him.
On a more local level, I noticed how the death of the poet, Philomene Long, obviously touched the Venice community. I found out about her for the first time in the September 2007 Beachhead issue with the headlines, “ Venice Loses Its Poet Laureate – Philomene Long, RIP.” Poet Laureate? How wonderful, yet sad as I only found out about her because of her publicized death. A photo of her appeared in this issue of her standing by her poem inscribed on the Poetry Wall in Windward Plaza. I loved the poem, a simple poem capturing what Venice means to me and others:
Stained with the blood of poets
City which lies
Beneath the breasts of birds
Guarded by cats
Behind every corner
The Muse, Angel of Surprise
Poems out of pavement cracks
Reading the article, I discovered a woman who had been part of the Beat movement, as well as a Catholic nun for five years. I discovered, too, that my own community actually treasured a poet.
It is true that today much of published, modern poetry is banal and selfish, speaking in crafty ways of absolutely nothing. Frankly, I would prefer a child’s poem with thought or feeling over many of these “smart” poems found in literary magazines. Some people like to blame the “confessional” poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for the turn of modern poetry into personal vomit and self-pity. Such people do not understand that these great poets used the personal to dive into the universal, as well as to ignite mythic and archetypal forces.
One simply needs to know where to find the poetry that speaks to your soul. As Mary Oliver says at the end of her handbook on poetry, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
Can you live a happy life without poetry? Probably. It is simply untrue, however, that poetry is only by the poet and for the poet. Even Emily Dickinson, who shunned publishing her poems in her life, touches the lives of individuals today. Or why would people leave poems on her grave?
Great poets are rebels in every sense of the word. They shake our ideas, our senses, our souls. For those of you who do not like poetry at all, too bad. The rebels are here to stay. And some of these rebels are reading and writing poetry in the Beachhead!