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Sunday, July 5, 2015

What Do You Need, Really Need?

Oxygen, right? Air to breathe. Water is a baseline requirement, as is sufficient food, and you can’t live without sleep.  I’m sure we can agree on those.

The way psychologist Abraham Maslow looked at human needs, only after the basics were covered would anyone worry about needing more.  Maslow’s notion of a hierarchy of needs has been questioned by critics, but most of us have noticed that we have a hard time concentrating when we’re too hungry; as much as the spirit may want to soar above the body, the body is not going to stop making demands.

Okay, then, what about love? Or do you prefer power? Then, security – or excitement? Challenge – or comfort?

The other day one of my regular customers, with a heartfelt sigh, asked the rhetorical question, “What do people do who don’t read books?” For her, as for me, books are among life’s necessities. If I had never learned to read or had had no access to books, I would never have traveled to medieval China, never met Helen Keller, never had a horse – and that very short list of experiences I would have missed without reading books could obviously be extended to book length itself.

But that’s not my object at present. I’m sneaking up on my real question in roundabout fashion. Do we need poetry in our lives? Here is one explanation for the affirmative, not necessarily the one I would give but an interesting perspective.

Did you read poetry back in grade school and high school? Only because you had to, or did it give you something other kinds of reading, as well as other kinds of experience, could not provide? Have you continued reading, maybe even writing poetry in your adult life?

Sometimes I think the reading of poetry, for busy grownups, is like lying in the grass on a summer’s day to watch clouds. It’s easy to forget from day to day about clouds and poetry as the days succeed each other with increasingly ferocious speed until one day, startled, we realize that years have gone by.

To read a poem first thing in the morning or last thing at night, like taking half an hour on a summer afternoon to watch clouds, is to give ourselves valuable personal time off from otherwise over-organized lives. And we can do it. We can give ourselves the time, calm our spirits, and enrich our lives, too, by freshening our senses and understanding with poetry. 

Note to those who “don’t understand” poetry: Turning reading into work is not necessarily the answer to enjoying poetry. Just as we don't need to analyze clouds to lose ourselves in watching them drift by (and everyone sees something different in the shifting shapes of clouds), so with poetry. Let the sounds and rhythms pour down on you like warm, gentle rain. Let images arise in your mind as they will. Perhaps one small phrase, three or four words, will resonate meaningfully, and that will be the poem’s gift to you. You do not owe it the ordeal of analysis.

Note to writers of prose: All of us who write anything have as much to learn from reading poetry as from reading fiction or history or memoir. My customer-friend quoted at the beginning of this post told me that one Michigan fiction writer, a person with some literary authority, has declared line breaks to be the only difference left between poetry and prose – what is done with the line, that is. Well, if he’s right, all the more reason for prose writers to make a practice of reading poetry, but to me there remains a second difference: to me, a poem is a distillation, in a way a book (fiction or nonfiction) or even an essay never can be.

In the best of poems, each word is essential, because the poem’s central thought or emotion or image has been refined to its essence, all extraneous language pared away. And so the exercise of writing a poem is excellent practice for any writer, and reading poetry something no writer can neglect. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, stressed the importance of reading other people’s books every day, and more recently, when asked in an interview what his readers would be surprised to find on his shelves, he mentioned books of poetry. Yes, I was surprised by that, but on second thought it made perfect sense. The most economical and thoughtful use of language can be found in the work of poets.

I know I need poetry, not (like air and water and food and sleep) for bare survival but in order to flourish. Sometimes I forget for a while how necessary it is to me, but having a bookstore gives me plenty of reminders, as do my poet friends.

My next bookstore guest will be Jennifer Clark from Kalamazoo on Wednesday, July 8. She will be at Dog Ears Books beginning at 3 p.m. to read from her collection of poems titled Necessary Clearings.

Here is the first stanza from “Snake Wife” (great title!):

Skin so tight now,

every breath, a chore.

She is not sure how she

stepped into this skin that

once glistened and grooved.

Where will the poem go next from this beginning? Don’t you long to know? Please join us on Wednesday!


Dawn said...

You are converting me PJ! I will become a poetry reader yet.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, you are making me very happy!

Karen Casebeer said...

Interesting post today. I think my schooling ruined me from enjoying poetry. All those years of counting the beats, labeling the type of rhyme, and reading poems in a singsong fashion made reading poetry a tedious prospect and pushed me away from enjoying it. It wasn't until I discovered the likes of Mary Oliver and May Sarton that I was drawn back into the genre. Also, hearing poetry being read "correctly" has helped me learn to enjoy it too.

P. J. Grath said...

Your comment is interesting, too, Karen, as many people find the lack of rhythm in much modern poetry distressing.

Here is a comment I received this morning in an e-mail:

"Reading your post about poetry this morning.............coincidentally I was reading from a book called "The Music of What Happens" just yesterday. I bought it years ago and take it out off and on, like a literary snack. The author, Helen Vendler, was dismayed at the modern (1988) tendency to analyze poetry. She felt that readers ought to just let the poem wash over them, to feel the rythm of of the words. Looking for the poet's meaning, disecting the form, diminished the work as art. Like looking at a painting, the impact is in the initial impression. and respoinse.

"I enjoyed reading your post, which hints at the same idea. It's something that made me sigh with relief at seeing that my own enjoyment of poetry is not necessarily shallow. Cheri"

Cheri -- EXACTLY! Let it wash over you, like a shower or a soft rain. Exactly my advice!