Our society that judges value by how well something functions or how much money it can earn obviously sees little worth in the art of poetry. After all, what can a poem do? And if it’s a good poem, can it make the financial leap into movie hood? Not really. Few are the poets who earn a living at their craft. Most write poetry as an avocation while keeping their day jobs as teachers, lawyers, factory workers, doctors––just about all kinds of occupations and professions. Poetry is for most a sideline, a hobby that delights the poet and few others. It is a nonprofit venture that never builds bank accounts.
Sadly, at the bottom rung of the literary ladder, all by its lonesome, sits poetry, sort of like a stepchild that goes unappreciated and often maligned by those literary superiors like the novel, the dramatic play, the short story, and even the song that is really a poem to which someone gave a tune and made it danceable.
As a poet I resent the maltreatment people give to poetry. In my own life, for nearly sixty years, the reading, writing, and studying of poetry have gotten me over life’s tallest hurdles and out of life’s deepest slumps. It has helped me cope with the loss of loved ones by keeping them alive in my poetry. It has served as therapy when sadness and sorrow would have crushed me and laughter seemed something I could hardly imagine could be possible again.
How can poetry do all that? After all, a poem consists of words on lines arranged in stanzas. So what! I think there is magic in poetry. In the mind of the poet myriad words vie for attention and it is his or her job to extract those that are compatible with others so that all of them can work in concert, providing the reader with sound, image, and idea. And unlike most writing, poetry operates on several layers of meaning. The poem about Allegra the Clown is on the surface about a clown and all images relate to that established theme. But for each reader there is something beneath that surface meaning, something the reader can consider a lesson to be learned, a remembrance of some event or person too long forgotten, even a solution to a problem.
I remember giving a featured poetry reading some years ago to a crowd of about thirty people. When I was done reading my poems, a woman in tears walked up to me and said, “Thank you so much for reading your poem about hearts. Not only did it touch me deeply, but it helped me make a decision I have been struggling with for years.” What exactly did she read into my poem? It was a simple three-stanza poem about how a human heart spends its typical day. Nothing profound on the surface, but underlying it there was certainly something in it for that woman.
My father called poetry “The language of the heart.” It was that tongue that never lied because it came straight from a person’s inner self, and unlike the outer self that dresses up with airs and disguises, the inner self cannot tell a lie. It’s not built that way. It’s too tied in with a person’s soul and souls try hard to stay clean and honest.
Often those who don’t like poetry are the same people who don’t want to like poetry. With disgust they remember their school days when English teachers walked on some high cloud, teaching Shakespearean sonnets as if the words were supposed to magically lift them all out from their desks and float along with their teacher. It turned them off. Language for them was meant to be spoken in the parlance of the day, the colloquial chitchat of the common folk. Poetry for them was some type of high-faluting talk that could more easily been said without flowers and song. And God help the boy who was discovered red-handed reading poetry books! Unless he was quick to tell a lie like “I found it on the playground” or “I’m holding it for my sister,” he was quickly and mercilessly ostracized from the team.
I was such a boy. Running around stickball bases at ten, I remember dropping my notepad wherein I had scribbled some impromptu poems a lá Ogden Nash, the humorous poet of the mid-20th Century,and my best friend George Newman picked it up. “Gimme dat!” I demanded in my deepest Brooklynese voice. But George had to recite too loudly all of the my Nash-like poems while the rest of the boys called me “Sissy” or “Poet-ass” or “Freak.” Did it stop me? I kept writing poems but only in the secrecy of my home and I never carried incriminating evidence when I played ball or hung out with the guys. Living two lives was not easy.
I would like to see poetry come into its own again. I would like to see people who write poetry get more serious about it in the sense that they decide they’d like to study more about it, not simply dash off lines and call it poetry. If one chooses to be a poet, part-time or full-time at retirement like myself, then he or she ought to splurge and buy a poetry handbook, learn all about poetic measures and forms and biographies of famous poets and their poems as well.
Who knows! Maybe in a future American society, poetry will have climbed up a rung or two and will have won more hearts than those of us who write it and love it so much.
Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts