Sunday, June 04, 2006

Background Noise #2

Artist/Album: Rachael Yamagata/Happenstance
Drink: Lev Black Lion

For some of us a better question might be why shouldn’t we write poetry? but, at the risk of preaching to the choir, I’m going to attempt to answer the more important question: Why should we write poetry?

And, maybe the question ought to be extended to: Why should we write poetry in the face of such things as war, famine, genocide, greed, death, abuse, racism, etc.? I hope my arguments will show that these types of atrocities and injustices are exactly why we need to write poetry.

Obviously, these questions could be extended to all of the arts – Why paint? Why compose? Why sculpt? – but, since I am only familiar (and capable) in the poetic arts, I’ll leave these other questions for those better suited to answer them. However, I’m pretty sure the arguments I’ll make for poetry translate equally well to the other artistic disciplines.

Notice that I used the word discipline, just now. This is an important concept of poetry (and the arts, in general) that I feel is often overlooked and/or disregarded. It takes discipline to create something out of nothing. It takes discipline to work alone, without the encouragement or feedback of others. It takes discipline to continue while the world around you crumbles into even greater disorder; to continue creating despite it all, or myabe, even, because of it all.

Discipline is key, too, in becoming a better poet (and isn't that what we all strive to become – to be better?), as one must constantly work at their craft: reading, writing, revising, editing, reading more, etc. But, this is another topic to be handled in a later installment of Background Noise.

So, what does discipline have to do with why we should write poetry? Well, discipline can be soothing to the weary mind. Think about yoga or meditation. It takes tremendous amounts of effort, practice and discipline to study these subjects. This discipline is the reason they are studied, and adored. In a similar way, poetry clears the mind and allows one to get in touch with something deeper.

But, the biggest reason (and argument) for writing poetry – the reason that really matters – is the potential for a deep emotional connection one can make with themselves and, thusly, with others.

Poetry is ultimately a form of communication. Some people forget this and use it as a means of exorcising internal demons, or as an ersatz diary – as a form of self-expression. This is fine, as long as something universal is communicated through the poem, some profound truth. If not, we haven’t poetry but a separate beast altogether; and one very few would want to, never mind need to, read.

The communicative properties of poetry transcend time. A person who's lost a loved one two-hundred years from now can gain solace from a poem written five-hundred years before. A brokenhearted poet can assuage her sorrows by writing them down, and later do the same for a stranger with the same exact words. And the poem, singular among the creative arts, is magical in just this way. The poem, singular among the creative arts, can heal.

And this communication works in two different ways. There is the hoped-for communication between a poet and her reader. This is the most obvious type of communication, the most blatant form of it. But, as stated before, there is also the internal, self-learning type of communication that poetry can facilitate – and not just for the writer, either. There’s just something about sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper rolled into a typewriter, or in holding a pencil against a blank notebook, or in sitting in front a computer with nothing but white staring back at you. There’s something to this that lends itself to deep exploration of the mind; to thinking about the grand things in life and how we relate to them; to figuring out the mysteries of our universe, however minor.

Likewise, there's just something about staring at a poem, tightly framed with so much white, blank real estate surrounding it; so much to reveal in so few words; so much emotion and truth contained within.

What is it about a poem that makes us want to revel in it? What is it about a poem that keeps us coming back day after day, year after year? What is it about a poem that makes us what to memorize it, and share it, and memorialize it? For all of the mysteries and profundities and poem can give voice to, there's a beautiful irony in the fact that this is the one mystery that shall forever remain so. The power of poetry is in the fact that no one will ever know why it is so powerful. The magic of poetry is in the fact that no one will ever know why it is so magical.

Lastly, but no less significant, is the fact that poetry is proof to those who follow that we were here; that we bore witness; that we tried. We scrambled to the top of our personal mountains, our knees and elbows bloodied, and pounded on the bottom of the heavens, screaming: We are here! We are trying to make a difference!

And this, ultimately, is the answer to our question. Poetry helps us mine the great depths of ourselves; helps us answer the mysterious questions of the universe; helps us divine the truths about our existence. And, it helps us convey this information to others, so that they, too, might be soothed or comforted, or similarly enlightened; or, if they’re particularly adventuresome, might even be inspired to join us in our journey.

As for the answer to the question, Why shouldn’t we write poetry? I’ll leave that for you to answer.

For further reading about this an other poetry related topics check out the great articles by Jough Dempsey and others at


Blogger Luis said...

Justin, you hit the nail in the head there, discipline, to be able to write in solitude with no one hanging over your shoulder, but whatever background noise you can use to create words, to make them dance on the white page, to set the paper on fire, and let it burn.
Great beginning, JB. One must create alone, free of so-called workshops for profit. Discipline!
We all need that along with the freedom that solitude can bring.

4:56 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

that's exactly it, Luis.

And, I completely forgot to emphasize the solitude aspect of creation. So true.

I hope others receive it as well. Thanks!

9:44 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

"Poetry is ultimately a form of communication. Some people forget this and use it as a means of exorcising internal demons, or as an ersatz diary – as a form of self-expression. This is fine, as long as something universal is communicated through the poem, some profound truth. If not, we haven’t poetry but a separate beast altogether; and one very few would want to, never mind need to, read."

for me this is the biggest problem with most small press poetry. it too often works as 'journaling' for those with something to say, but nothing universal to say, something that will resound over time, something that, as you note, "can heal." and it takes the metaphor to do this, it takes a way to put a concrete face upon a thought, to name an unnameable thing.

plus too often the ability to put these emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc. into words requires the right receiver of the message, it takes the Poet to act as intermediary, to act as antennae, to take in the message and translate it, then communicate it both within and without. not everyone can do this, though everyone CAN give voice to their inner poet. but as Joseph Campbell note is The Power of Myth (a great bit of work worth checking out):

"mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. it has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth-penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim to what can be known but not told...

that's what art reflects-what artists think of God, what people experience of God. but the ultimate, unqualified mystery is beyond human experience. that's what poetry is for. poetry is a language that has to be penetrated. poetry involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves. then you experience the radience, the epiphany. the epiphany is the showing through of the essence..."

the ultimate communication is between man and himself, is about understanding his place in the cosmos, understanding and accepting all of it, good and bad, up and down, midnight and dawn. this is the "mystery" you are speaking of j.b, understanding that which can never be understood. a glimpse at the unseeable face of God, whatever that is for the reader or the writer, and the "communion" between the two.

a bit heavy, but so is life. art can be fun and it can be light, but ultimately, real art is about reaching out across the void, raising our voices in terrible song and accepting the tragic beauty of our fleeting and imperfect existence.

great post.

10:33 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

and for further clarification, I use "God" to mean: that which gives us fulfillment/fills our lives with meaning/makes life worth living. it can be music, poetry, a magic guy in the sky, etc.

maybe Art=God.

who knows?

that's the point.

11:10 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

good points, man. good points. even as a devout atheist, i like the idea that poetry is the unseeable face of god. for me, as an atheist, "god" is that which is unknowable, unexplainable and ultimately that which man aspires to most. i feel, personally, that man is his own god, but art as god is just as valid in my worldview.

good points. i'm gonna put that book by Campbell down on my list and make sure i read it this year. thanks for the tip.

you said this is heavy, and that's exactly what it is. in every connotation of the word. and, as you said, too, that is the problem with much of small press poetry (a later column will deal with this): too many take it far too lightly. too many consider poetry a means for self-expression. it can be, but it isn't poetry without that SOMETHING ELSE!

11:46 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:47 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

i definitely believe in the solitude and alone aspects, i also believe, as knut hamsun said (no where near his exact quote) to be an effective writer, one must not be afraid to put every fear, desire, secret etc... on paper. but as christopher mentioned, it takes the right person. i'ma end with one of my favorite quotes -

"solitude brings out the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous; to poetry."

-thomas mann Death in Venice

3:16 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

great quote by mann, Casey. thanks.

solitude is very important and i'm pissed with myself that i didn't play that aspect up, but oh well.

we could discuss the finer points of poetry until we're blue in the face, but the fact remains:
we all have very different, very intimate, very personal reasons for why we write poetry. the WHY, however, isn't as important as the simple fact that we ARE.

4:56 PM  
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7:47 PM  
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10:04 AM  

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