A few months ago, I was talking to a former student about how she teaches poetry to college undergraduates. “Oh, I just ask them what the point of the poem is,” she said, as if the answer would be the simplest, most obvious thing in the world, “and then I ask them how the poem makes that point.”
Moments like that, when big, complicated ideas find their way into succinct, elegant expression, remind me why I love teaching and why I love poetry.
This most verbally obsessed of art forms never uses two words where one can do, and never lets that one word mean just one thing. The point of poetry is not merely to make points — after all, so do TED talks and university lectures and press conferences. Poems make their points instead in a singularly pointed way, a bit like the mysterious but never purposeless spin of a compass. They deliver messages with uncanny precision, even as those messages remain open to more than one interpretation. Their strategies of concise wordplay are designed to catch our attention and linger in our minds. They reward rereading.
In case you didn’t know, April is National Poetry Month, 30 days in which to contemplate anew why this particular art of words holds a place in the collective heart that is unrivaled.
At my university we celebrate the month in grand style. We give out two generous poetry awards. One, with a prize of $100,000, recognizes a book published by a mid-career poet; the other awards $10,000 for a first book by a poet of “genuine promise.”
Our judges, celebrated poets in their own right, must decide which collections of poetry merit such remunerative honors. They must divine whether a first collection carries the signs of its author’s literary future and whether a mid-career poet’s work has fulfilled that early promise with more achievements to come.
For us, these awards at least begin to ensure that, the status of federal funding for the arts and humanities notwithstanding, works of great American poetry will outlast their moment. They give us the chance to recognize poetry at a time when language is being applied roughly and recklessly in public forums across media and the nation, when complicated arguments and crude insults have been reduced to 140-character parodies of the elegant concision and keen insights poetry is known for.
I take comfort in knowing that poets already are exploring not only the irony of this but also its very format.
I also take comfort in being reminded of language’s vivid humanity, its fragility and nuance. I’m reminded of it in these lines by the winner of our mid-career award this year, Vievee Francis. An accountant in one of her poems tells us:
I keep a ledger because I want to know the bend
Of the tale. There’s truth not in but under the details
Like dirt beneath a rouged thumbnail, or
Flesh under fingertips blued by ink and sugar.
There are secrets that won’t free you. Secrets
Without purpose. I’m keeping a record so it gets told
And I’m also reminded of it, when, in the first book by our other winner, Phillip B. Williams, the poet pays tribute to a young gay man murdered in New York City, telling that man’s mother:
I love my brother who wasn’t a brother of mine....
To appear brotherless is to appear beyond help…
This month or sometime soon, I hope you discover a poem that moves you, startles you, reminds you of the lasting truths that live “under the details.” Attend to it. Read it out loud and let it fill your mouth. Memorize it and make it yours forever. Put it in your pocket for emergencies.
Better still, I suggest that you try something truly revolutionary: Quit your Twitter feed and send a poem to someone, perhaps to someone with whom you disagree in our disagreeable times. Hopefully, it will mark the beginning of a deeper conversation, not only about what divides us but also about everything that we hold in common.
Lori Anne Ferrell is a humanities professor at Claremont Graduate University and director of the university’s Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which will be presented Thursday at a ceremony at the Los Angeles Public Library.
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