Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Poetry Can Open Space for the Imagination

Susan chimes in: April is National Poetry Month, a time to read, write, and celebrate poetry in all its forms. In Wyoming, WyoPoets marks National Poetry with their annual Spring Workshop. The 2018 event, "The Art and Craft of Poetry," will feature today's guest contributor, Art Elser. Learn more and register on the WyoPoets website.

Guest post by Art Elser

In these times of constant connection to the world, waves of information that daily inundate us, fears many have because of the recent events, is there room in our lives for poetry? Can we measure its cost effectiveness? Its effect to the bottom line? Its return on investment? Since April is National Poetry Month, perhaps we should properly ask: What value does poetry add to our lives?

As with all art, we have difficulty finding a use or value or price we can assign to poetry, no schema that sorts it into an economic priority list. Art finds its value not in utility, ROI, or cost savings but in feeding the imagination, in creating a room or space in the human soul where we can be encouraged, nourished, calmed, healed by it.

The ancients knew the value of poetry. It was first the vehicle by which fathers passed knowledge to sons, mothers to daughters, elders to new leaders. Poetry told the farmer when to plant, harvest, how to tend the crops. It told the healer which herbs healed illnesses and where to find them. Youngsters learned the social customs, laws, and taboos of their tribe, shamen passed on religion to novitiates. As cultures became more sophisticated poetry took the form of oral history and legend, for example, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf. More metaphorical forms emerged like the Psalms.

A friend recently sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, never wandering off on a tangent.

But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet attempts to persuade you to take a course of action but is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence with him and wander through the "bee-loud glade." We see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose, the iris by the stock pond. We smell their fragrance and feel the warmth of the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees are making.

Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days and her lack of time to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed. She also mentions she has to take the dog to the vet and that suddenly reminds her of the homeless couple she saw on a street, their shopping cart stacked with their belongings. They treat each other with such love and respect that in spite of the stale-sweat smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their lives shines from their eyes through the dirt on their faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world unknown to us. To imagine the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion. We discover a reverence for all humanity.

Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's  beauty and joy as well as its pain, horrors, and disappointments. It helps us experience and better understand life happening around us. We learn to experience beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face glows with joy. Or we look up from the screen filled with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery that has made us see or feel something we have never seen or felt before.

Poetry helps to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, and also to imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives despite their hardships. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the of the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, sexual preference, country of origin. We learn empathy and to treat others with love and compassion.

Perhaps in this age in which, by many accounts, attention spans are getting shorter, people are isolated, spending more time online, and many want to get away from the violence and horror in the world, poetry can open up ideas and feelings to help assuage the pain that seems to fill our world. A short, effective poem that fits nicely onto a small screen may be more apt to be read than an editorial or op-ed piece.  Poetry that feeds our imagination and opens spaces in our minds for beauty and joy and truth and empathy and compassion and reverence can heal our anxious souls and help us see our way back to our humanity.

Art Elser is a poet and writer who has been published in many journals and anthologies. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, is a collection of 120 haiku selected from over 2,000 he has written. His other books include a memoir, What's It All About, Alfie?, and two books of poetry, We Leave the Safety of the Sea, and A Death at Tollgate Creek. Art lives in Denver with his wife, Kathy, and their pup, Walker.  He will be the presenter at the 2018 WyoPoets Spring Workshop, April 27-28 in Cheyenne, and was the juror for the soon-to-be-released 2018 WyoPoets chapbook, This Box for Dreams.