Commentary: Poetry keeps us connected to life, love, ourselves

Editor's note: This article first appeared April 28 in the Las Vegas Sun under the headline, "Discover the power of poetry," and is being reprinted here at the request of the author and with the permission of the newspaper.

Poetry is a wonder! April was National Poetry Month, which makes this a good time to check it out. A poet knows the wonder of a listener who says, "Your poem about that first kiss? I felt that way too. You really got it there!"

There's also wonder in the "capture" of a cherished moment, locked up for eternity. Conversely, it's also a wonder anyone cares at all, when poetry's often taught so badly.

Anyway, after 40 years devoted to poetry and also teaching it, I think I'm pretty normal. With two kids (one deceased), I vote and drink beer and have run 11 marathons, just to dispel the notion that poets are effete intellectuals who only come out after dark. Here's why reading and writing poetry can become a mainstay for our lives.

First, reading poetry and newspapers, short stories or novels makes us smarter and gives us the satisfaction of being well read. Robert Frost offers us wise counsel on roads not taken, while the late but contemporary Charles Bukowski teaches us patience and style in the face of life's stresses.

Otherwise, if you love nature, Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder will show you California's rugged coastlines and Nevada's ragged and majestic peaks. Sadly, T. S. Eliot will also counsel that "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land."

Moreover, if morning's news of lost airliners, range wars and Ukraine makes you want to throw a shoe, enjoy the tranquility, silence and purity of a Japanese haiku. In short, show me a reader of poetry, and you may find a person wise and uncommonly good. That is, seek human riches in the word, and you will be renewed.

Poetry's second reward is keeping us connected to life. In our cyber world where kids have their noses in cellphones and where texts rank with gold, a dose of poetry reconnects us to life's universal touchstones — love, wholeness and our yearnings to get back to nature, forces that bind us to humanity. They are also what we need to fight our sense of estrangement when facing "press 1, press 2" — times when we may just want to end the call.

If that happens, hang up and switch to some poetic lines like Norman Russell's, "Oh love / I come to you / along every trail on every mountain / I come to you love."

If possible, forsake the electronic voices connecting us to everything material and nothing spiritual. One poet said simply, "I know who I owe ..." If computers make communication easy, poems help us savor real communication.

Sadly, Dear Johns are sent by text, and employees message co-workers inches away. In contrast to poetry, the cyber world has us emailing instead of hugging and voice mailing in lieu of face time. Let poetry based on real feeling reconnect us to loved ones, rivers, wind or the magic of new romance. Moreover, the words last forever.

Finally, understand that writing a poem is a "re-sounding" of experience, which extends immortality to the moment. What we say to one another is transitory, ephemeral, and what is sent to memory is too. Although a mother exclaims she'll never forget the first sight of her newborn child, ultimately, even months later, her once-vivid memories will fade. However, if we commit the poetic image to a poem, journal entry or diary — or the imprint of a photograph — the moment lasts forever.

Indeed, the poem, in its highly imagistic and compressed form, becomes the moment. In fact, let me add, anecdotally, that in throes of divorce, my ex-wife, spying my journal entries of nearly 6,000 pages, suddenly asked me, "In our little time left, what's to be done with these notebooks if anything happens to you?"

To her surprise, I said simply, "Give them to my daughters, and just say that in these poems and notes, 'This was your Dad. These pages will tell you his hopes, successes, failures and fantasies. Enough to last a lifetime and even beyond. It's all for you.' "

From that conversation, however, the tables turned terribly crazily. That is, for years and years, I had put that similar pitch to countless English and creative writing students: I lectured that if one keeps a journal, which may include an entry to be set gem-like as centerpiece of a poem or story, the writing transcends us. After many years, from worn lecture notes, it had been a heartfelt but almost rote admonition.

Then suddenly, in 1999, I lost my eldest daughter, who, blessedly, was already a poet. Misty Mallory's first book of poetry, already completed, was published posthumously, to make her words eternal.

In fact, whenever I pick up her small book to read her poems, it's as if she's by me saying, "Daddy, don't worry, I'm right here with you — these printed words are my voice.' " Then ends the book, "I've been looking for words / from God that say / 'time to rest now.' " So all these many years later, for me, such is the power of poetry. To carry a message from beyond.

Finally, poetry is a happening thing. After all, it's hip to be smart literarily and artistically. Forget the latest high-tech fad and life's superficial materialism. Better to find solace in emotions crystallized, through poetry, as bred from love and the natural wonders.

Set your internal compass on poems of substance and soul, and bypass estrangement and isolation. Write poetry yourself to gain a measure of immortality. Remember, finally, that poems come in all shapes and sizes, from free verse to Shakespearean sonnets or small jewel-like haikus. When teaching, writing, or reading poems, I always remind myself that anything goes as long as it's good.

A sort of recipe for life, isn't it? The wonder of poetry is.

Former Newport Beach resident LEE MALLORY is a retired college professor and a longtime mainstay in the Orange County poetry scene. He now lives in Las Vegas.

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