Last week our country experienced a horrific loss in Parkland, FL. It beggars the imagination. In light of that, one might ask what the value of writing poems might be. One might ask what the value of art might be after so much wanton violence. Certainly in the face of such devastation and loss, language starts to feel meager. Yet, isn’t language all that we have, finally? Isn’t this how we name things and experiences?—Through words we come to know what we know and lay claim to it. They are also how we can communicate experience to one another. Language is the way that can allow another to come to feel our experience, to step across, even briefly, between the divide of “I” and “you.”
Poetry speaks the experience of being human and alive insofar as it provides a way that we discover what it means to be human, what it means to find the means to be in a world in which change is the one constant. This may be a romantic position, but it does seem that it remains true. Why get hung up on labels? “Why poetry?” Past all accounting, we use language no matter what happens and people want to hear language that reveals the full spectrum of meaning. Despite facebook, twitter, and snapchat, we evidently continue to need stories, fictional and personal, we need images, real and resonant. We need, or so it seems, the pleasure of song, the structures of feeling, the intense recognition of words that push to the edges of what can be thought. We need, no matter what, to have the appetite of the imagination fed. It balances an otherwise destructive nature.
I think often of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that in thinking we are given to create patterns and orders and that we fashion meaning out of the materials of the world. The discovery and the creation of meaning are inseparable. The process of writing poetry is making that work with form explicit and manifestly present. We work with the forms we have inherited from tradition and make them newly responsive to the present tense. That work trains us to see how we might negotiate all forms, including the world as a vast set of forms that we can learn to work with. Percy Shelley once insisted, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But perhaps we should amend that and say writers are the unlegislated acknowledgers of the world. They work outside of the law or expectation and they insist that all moments and all things are full of potential meaning.
In his essay “The Use of Great Men,” Emerson tells us this: “The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.” Poets organize nature—be it the natural world or human nature—and by so doing create a destiny, a destiny for making things better. This organizing helps us encounter the chaos and change and make sense from it, build the possibility of empathy, identification, understanding, and, I dare say it, the potential for love. That’s not a sentimental love, but one that is fraught and demanding and exhilarating and out of which arises the possibilities of caring. We need that now. And if not now, then when?