I had gone to bed in my habitual way -- very late, with some difficulty, the muted sounds of C-Span droning in the background. Hours after, dazed with sleep, I heard it. Something about the grass being "the handkerchief of the Lord." The metaphor was so arresting that I was unsure whether it was the product of my own imaginative longings or the result of a dream.
The wondering woke me enough to realize that I was hearing the part of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in which he answers a child who asks, "What is the grass?"
. . . it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
The image of the creator as a designer who drops his handiwork for name recognition was extraordinary in itself. Even more remarkable was that this reading was being broadcast from the East Room of the White House. Fully awake now, I realized I was watching a replay of a "Millennium Evening" celebrating April as National Poetry Month. Three poets laureate -- Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, and Bob Hass -- were reading from the best of American poetry. Soon the words of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams filled my bedroom. Then came the powerfully moving Sylvia Plath, whose love poem to her child begins:
Populating the zeitgeist with explosions of expression, poetry and poets seem to be everywhere. There are poetry bouts, where the poets alternate reading poems up to five minutes long for a panel of judges who score them with points for each "round," as in a boxing match; poetry slams, where teams or individuals who may or may not be accomplished poets compete for trophies; and poetry circuses, which include both the above, plus roundtables, tag-team poetry, and "conventional" readings.
The Nation magazine is now publishing more than Calvin Trillin's political four-liners, and the inside front cover of Tikkun magazine showcases a modern religious poem. The Village Voice reports that a national queer slam has grown out of the need to create a safe space for gay and lesbian poets to slam. And poet laureate Joseph Brodsky's American Poetry and Literacy Project distributes thousands of copies of 101 Great Poems in truck stops, supermarkets, hotels and train stations across the country every April.
In a particularly heady mixture of creativity and capitalism, Marks & Spencer, the British department store chain, has hired an in-house poet, making the company the first in the U.K. (possibly the world) to do so. Earning $1,500 a month, the experimental bard -- Peter Sansom, a father of four whose favorite poets include Allen Ginsberg -- represents an attempt by management to "demystify the arts...[and] boost employee morale." He holds hour-long poetry workshops for employees four times a month. Similarly, Poets in Residence assigned by Britain's Poetry Society have been hired by Kew Gardens and the BBC, and there are rumors that the London Zoo is considering having one (no doubt to read Blake's "Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright").
Why so much poetry, and why now?
John Keats describes the poet as capable of "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In a society that venerates what is observable and measurable; in a "culture" that constricts imagination and reduces much of creativity to shallow, formulaic images, is it possible that we are witnessing a renaissance of the poetic sensibility? A tropism toward the internal and transcendant rather than the material? A cri de coeur for meaning?
To Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great poet and essayist who believed that all men live by truth, the poet is a vessel, a receiver of the ultimate truth with the ability to impart it. When the truth and beauty of the world "renders most people mute," poetry is a counterpoint of quietness, using language to evoke and provoke. It speaks most deeply to and of the silences, and resonates with the music of thought. Poets visit and rest in the spaces between immediate experience and experience mediated by the collective reality -- and poetry chronicles the landscapes of those spaces. All poems are maps of interior journeys, and poets are cartographers of the soul. The more intensely evocative the map, the greater the poet.
The gift of poetry is in the challenge of the naming -- and how much unnamed experience it can evoke. For the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger:
The truth of experience that poetry evokes awaits our readiness to hear it. We memorize poetry as children without understanding, so that when our lives fill in the spaces with experience, we will be able to graft some fragment of poetry onto them. And in this way, we give our world and the world meaning. The more people in any culture recognize, practice, and create poetry, the more the map of future experience is enlightened.
A dying culture kills imagination first, replacing it with stereotypic images, banality, and miniminalist musings. When the naming of an experience is superficial, insipid; when love becomes sex; when death becomes trite, the result is the diminishing of individual and collective experience.
One can argue that the political is the antithesis of the poetic, yet it is within the poetic sensibility -- the deep imaginative leaps, the courage to chart the unknown -- that a truly progressive politic should reside. Much of the joy, wonder, and awe of existence finds expression through poetry. Many of our great philosophical, theoretical, and ethical values are imparted through poetry. Perhaps our national conversation should focus on poetic values.
In my professional, political, and personal journeys, I have visited many spaces. They are all part of who I am. My own poetry is tied to my in-between states -- of beauty, truth, pain, loss, questioning. Now, when the external world is too much with me; when I am burdened by the functions and the forms of living; when I feel as if my consciousness and imagination are imprisoned by daily life, poetry can help free me. So here I offer some of the maps of my former journeys:
Merle Hoffman publisher/editor-in-chief of ON THE ISSUES, is founder/president of Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc. and Choices Mental Health Center in New York City.