Poet Laureate's blog: July 2018

July 2018 Poetry: What’s it Good For?
Last month, thousands of Grade 12 students across Canada graduated from secondary school. For many, it may be the last time they set eyes on poetry. In an age when education is presented as a means (skill building) to an end (employment), any time not spent on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or business subjects must be a waste of time, right? After all, what can poetry “do” for you? If you’re in it for the money, you’ve picked the wrong career, and even as a hobby, it’s vague and seemingly purposeless. 
 
As one writer put it: “To devote a life to poetry looks to most people like a decision to ignore the benefits of modern life, in particular the power of money to effect any meaningful progress. It looks suspiciously like sulking.” Hard to argue with that perspective, but a renowned physicist (and poet) Dr. Iggy McGovern disagrees. His claim as a scientist is that “Poetry as an inoculation against rampant emotion is now more necessary than ever.” Huh? How does that work? Isn’t poetry all about emotions v. the “reality” of science? 
 
Dr. McGovern explains that poetry is indeed largely concerned with our emotions, what he calls “the strange agents that operate on both sides of the brain-body border.” He notes that emotions are powerful stimuli that serve as both “our ‘emergency response unit’ and our own worst enemy.” This mixed bag is certainly evident these days, as emotions seem to be running high in so many aspects of life. Whether it’s politics, the economy, social issues–even our capricious Canadian weather–people are getting hot under the collar and bent out of shape. How on earth can poetry help? 
 
Simple answer: carefully chosen and consciously placed words. Poetry uses language in ways that help us see the world with a bit more perspective. Employing literary devices such as metaphor (“hot under the collar” and “bent out of shape”), poetry has the ability to present emotions within a frame, “tamed, like the performing tigers in the circus” as Dr. McGovern’s simile suggests. Emotions recollected in tranquility v. experienced first hand are more manageable, able to teach us valuable lessons, “so that the next time the heart revolts against the head, the potential damage is better contained.”
 
As Dr. McGovern points out, “Science, on the other hand, doesn’t do feelings.” Science by definition is about building a strong wall between cool logic and messy emotions in order to maintain true objectivity. But there are truths in poetry that differ from scientific truths. It may be unscientific to refer to getting one’s heart broken, but anyone who has suffered the loss of an important relationship knows all too well that “broken hearted” is just what it feels like. 
 
So, what can poetry “inoculate” us against and why is that even necessary? While one of the benefits of science has been useful knowledge that we can apply to make everyday life function better, too much tech can leave us feeling–well, a bit numb. From blurred vision from staring at a computer screen to texter’s thumb, we pay a price for our rampant addiction to the technological gifts that science has given us. One of the best uses of poetry is to get us off our screens and into our imaginations, more powerful engines of creativity than any machine, device or AI app.
 
How does poetry work its magic on us? The big difference between reading or hearing a poem and a scientific fact is in how the words are used. In an called essay Poetry & Science, Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub argues that while science is based on a single logical meaning of a sentence or word, “poetry tries for as many possible meanings and interactions between words and thoughts as it can.” Think of it as the difference between designing a garden and planting a crop in straight lines; with a crop, you are looking for uniformity, maximum yield and no surprises. The joy of a garden (not to mention wild nature) is its variety, diversity and surprises (how did that tulip get into the middle of the lawn?!?)
In this technological age, we may discover we need poetry more than ever. Modern science pushes us to get the one and only “right” answer in an increasingly ambiguous and nuanced world. Social media has given rise to expression of unbridled emotions that have led to ruptured relationships, despair, perhaps even war. This is what happens when science can deliver our every thought instantaneously to a rapacious public of potentially millions via 144 ill-considered characters. Poetry allows us, invites us, even forces us to slow down, take a breath, read and then reread, ponder, imagine. The “word-space” of a poem can take us out of the logical, linear “single-vision” Newtonian world we seem stuck in
 
In a time when the planet seems to spin faster on its axis every day and “the world is too much with us; late and soon,” poetry is a great remedy. We may no longer live in a time when humanity talked about the world via thousands of lines of memorized song-poems. Those epics eventually dissolved into individual words – pieces out of the whole, like science reduced to smaller and smaller bits of matter, many unseeable, not just unseen.  What we have in each area seems stingy by comparison, but poetry can help us reclaim the magic of true science: that what is known and knowable as well as our own emotions. 
 
When we are experiencing the inconsolable loss of feeling alone in the universe or in our own lives, poetry can provide solace. In a verse entitled “The Stars once spoke to man,” Rudolf Steiner wrote that while it is “world destiny” that the stars are silent now and that “to become aware of this silence can become pain,” it is in the “deepening silence” that human beings can earn to speak y to the starts and “to become aware of this speaking” can become strength for humanity.
 
I read at least one poem every day: on the deck with my morning coffee, stretched out, feet up for an afternoon break with a cool lemonade, at a sidewalk café with a glass of vino, even on my phone under the dark starry night sky. Wherever I am, it’s great to know that every poem I read is inoculating me against the vagaries of the world. I consider it time well “wasted.”
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Here’s my favorite summer poem, written by American poet Mary Oliver. If you had the good fortune to attend one of the performances of Quarter Century Theatre’s’ brilliant “Collected Stories for a Better World” in May, you may recognize the snippets that were included in the scene between the reluctant student and the jaded teacher. The latter was portrayed by fellow Collingwood poet and colleague jake MacArthur, whose own fabulous poem on weather is posted in the Poetry Corner. Check it out and think about penning a verse of your own “weather” or not you consider yourself a poet! Happy Summer.
 
The Summer Day
Mary Oliver
 
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?