Saturday, April 09, 2016

What Can Poetry Do?

As I write this, I'm realizing there are actually two threads in my thinking.

The first thread started the other day when I had a thought as I tried to do some writing; the phrase 'poetic justice" was in my mind. I thought 'can poetry really help to achieve justice?' Can art really have that much power (discuss, please!)?

The second thread is semi-ongnoing. Don't we all - or maybe with some of the news going around now - shouldn't we all aspire to do something to help better the world or help others or serve our professions/avocations ---something like that?  You often hear folks talk about "giving back."  For example, Ballerina Misty Copland, first African American Principal Dancer with the American  Ballet Theater, does programs to get youth involved in dance. Other examples are certainly around us.  I frequently watch "Mysteries at the Museum", and my favorie stories are usually the ones where the central subject of the story wants to help folks somehow, like Garett Morgan, who created a breathing safety hood for firefighters and put his own life on the line to prove its efficacy.

So, since I write poetry, I wonder sometimes about serving this great art form.  I don't think I'm the one to lead a workshop (we have some fine local poets who do that) although I feel that is great service. Well, I DID help publicize a colleague's "Poetry Day" at college one year.  Can that count?

Now do you all believe in serendipity?  Not many minutes before starting to write this came the spark for this post. I was doing a totally unrelated search and found - what - this quote from JFK which related directly to the first thread.  Could hardly believe it:
"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

WOW,  just WOW.  It's worth remembering that JKF was the first U. S. president to have a poet do a poem in his inaugural program.  That poet was of course, Ropbert Frost; the poem was  "The Gift Outright."    In his thank you note to Frost, JFK wrote:  “It’s poetry and power all the way!”

Of course, JFK wasn't the only poet to appreciate poetry.  In a post on my other blog, I mentioned how John Adams did.  And of course, Clinton had our wonderful Maya Angelou do a poem for his first inaguration.  Other poets have read/recited at Clinton's second inagural and Obama's two inaugurals.  From what I've read, even though Robert Frost is also great, my nod goes to Ms. Angelou's poem.

But I digress. Again, what can poetry do?  Can poetry really have power?  Poet (and law student) Reginald Dwayne Betts thinks so.  He was recently on the Tavis Smiley program. In this interview he said he wanted to be a poet for the power where his poetry was.  He also said he had seen some people's lives changed by poetry.  Now THAT'S power.

And the great English poet, William Wordsworth, has been in my poetic thoughts, too.  In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads,  he wrote:  "In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs—in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time."  Pretty powerful stuff!

So what can poetry do?  It seems to me it has power to reach us with its expressions of all manners of the human condition.  And THAT can empower us in many ways, individually and collectively.

Now as far as what I can do for poetry? Hmmmmm.  I'm working on that one.  How about this: two variations of writing forms that could be exercises.

First, a cinquain. Here is a reference for the standard form and an alternate form.
I recently wrote a cinqain, but it ended up being my own take on the alternate form shown in the link.  My last line is 5 words that amplify or extend thoughts about the subject. (And my line 4 is a bit different from that 'alternative' set-up).  I don't know about anyone else, but I find writing exercises or prompts or whatnot seem to work best for me if I a) find them "a fun thing to try" and b) not let it hamstring my final work. Sometimes just doing a exercise to do some writing practice can spark something productive later.

Second, how about a variation on the Pilish poem?  This form is tailor made for mathies. The number of  letters in each word of the poem in order should match the corresponding digits in the famous irrational number, "pi".  My variation would be: Each LINE in order should have the same number of WORDS as the corresponding digit in "pi."  Disclosure: I haven't tried this yet.

OK, does that count as service?  And also in the spirit of service, some time ago I posted some writing prompts for poets and other authors.  Check them out!

Finally, it now occurs to me (days after originally posting this), that taking another  cue from JFK can pull the two threads of this post together: "Ask what Poetry can do for You AND ask what You can do for Poetry."

And it would be so appreciated if you use any of these exercises or prompts to just post a comment and let me know you found them of value. THANKS!



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