The first day of my spring poetry class, we spent the initial few minutes jotting down whatcame to mind when we thought of poetry; then we went around the room sharing a word orphrase from our responses. For months I had been keeping a small notebook of little drawingsand short poems, so when it came time to share what I associated with poetry I spoke up fromspot in the circle, saying, “Doodles.” When asked to expound on my response, I talked about mylittle notebook and my habit of jotting down little poetic truths and pencil-scratch doodles whenthey came to me throughout the day.
Elizabeth Alexander was right in saying that poetry is “a poor people’s art form.” Shespoke of how a writer must have mass quantities of time in order to write a novel, and howpoetry is not so. You only need a moment to scribble down a poem. She shared the story of apoet who claimed to write her best poetry at the dinner table with her kids. The poet believed thatshe could “snatch” time to write in the midst of her own experiences. I would argue that we allhave that ability to write from within our daily routine. I think of the conditions expressed inmarriage vows. “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” anyonecan write poetry. Inevitably, poetry is wedded to the human experience as a means of expressingit and as an attempt at understanding it.
We saw this in my spring poetry course as we studied the W.S. Merwin poem, “To theOld”. In reading the poem, I felt myself step into the tired shoes of an old man reflecting on theprocess of his own aging and on moments from his youth. He describes fish he watched swim ina stream one summer. The imagery he creates with shimmering words brings the scene to life forhis audience: “to see the transparent fish flash beneath my face” (13-14). Reading his words, Ithought of trips to Allsop Park as a kid where we would tromp through the little creek there,catching crawdads and minnows. In an instant, I had related to a man over a summer streamscene despite decades of difference in age because of what he wrote down one day. Poetryallows us to connect. It’s a “poor people’s art” and an art of transcendence with which peoplecan rise above not only fiscal divides, but also age discrepancies, gender distinctions, andcultural differences.
In the interview, Alexander spoke of how cultures would pass on their stories throughsong. She views songs as synonymous with poetry because she doesn’t feel that any poet wouldwrite with the hope that their words would “fall flat.” Alexander furthers the connection thatshe’s drawn between songs and poetry by claiming that poems are similar to songs in theemotional response they elicit from those who encounter them. I would tend to agree with herargument that songs have an emotional effect on people, especially good songs. That kind ofresponse is universal in the sense that you don’t have to be of a certain class or race or age to feelit. Emotion is human, and poetry’s relationship with it makes poetry innately human.
In her interview, Alexander states that, “poetry has always existed in a communalcontext” and I tend to agree. Over just nine words, I connected to a Pulitzer prize winner throughan age discrepancy of decades. We didn’t need a novel to connect us, just a nostalgic instantcaptured in less than a sentence. Poetry is a matter of community because we all have a stake init. All you need to write and understand poetry is to be human. The notion of community thatAlexander discusses revolves around the sharing and the understanding of human experiences,and I, in accordance with what I believe her to have said, see poetry as a means of doing that forthe “poor people”, the rich people, and the other people in between.
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