While on vacation in a foreign country, you get lost on the seedy side of town. An unsavory character approaches and sticks a gun in your ribs. Naturally, you assume he’s robbing you. But it becomes eminently clear the deranged fellow has other designs when he asks, “Why should anyone care about literature?” You’re about to respond when he snarls, “Choose your words carefully – your life depends on it!”
Obviously, this is pure claptrap on my part – robbers want your money, not your musings. Still, I think the scenario poses an interesting question for debate: Does literature have the power to save lives?
Flashback to the winter of 1990, at a private Catholic college in Upstate, New York: a walk-on baseball player whose look is punctuated by a brown leather jacket and a Mohawk, slumps, hungover, in the back row of Victorian Lit class. Academically adrift and one semester short of blowing his education (and, to some extent, his life), he’s yet to probe the dying father motif to Hamlet-esque proportions.
Sister Joan, having shed her black robe, habit and wimple for a white turtleneck, navy slacks and blazer, closes her eyes and begins to recite…
The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listen’d with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria…
That was the moment. Next to the pinging cast iron radiator, with the overhead lights alternately glinting off Sister Joan’s round spectacles and rapturous smile. She didn’t just recite the poem, so much as she stepped inside of it. That was the moment literature bloomed inside of me, quite possibly, saving my life.
* * *
Two decades later and I’d hardly consider myself an aficionado of the form. I suspect there were multiple forces that lead me to “tune out,” so to speak. My 15-year marriage to fiction. That 5-year memoir fling (McCourt and I still spin yarns over at the local watering hole of my dreams). Somewhere along the way, I started to believe poetry was strictly made for the sub-culture; that is, if you weren’t teaching poetry in college or sending out original verses to literary magazines, you had no business reading it. It was as if poems were sneering from the library shelves: move along, there’s nothing for you to see here.
But that was then, this is now.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what, in addition to Sister Joan’s passion, drew me to poetry in the first place. Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” To be sure, I was an emotional bundle at 20. Two decades later, the element of wonder remains, but more so at the power of observation and the scientific processes by which words are chosen, as if through a conspiratorial gesture between the poet’s left and right brain. (I’m guessing the same mechanisms allow some mathematical-logical folks to take the error message “The Server is Busy” at face value, while creative types are off and running on metaphor).
Poetry is more than I dare to say in as many words.
The point is I’m finding my way back to a timeless form. And I have hope that if I can re-discover poetry, then the greater public at large can, too.
We live in a different era (an indisputable fact confirmed by my I-phone auto-correcting the word “poetry” to “potty” this morning). But recapturing some of the magic and the mystery I felt, not just in my college years, but as a toddler, sitting on the library floor in kindergarten where we congregated to listen to Dr. Seuss poems, would be nothing short of a miracle.
I have no delusions of grandeur here. I mean I’d love it if wordplay was something we engaged in while passing strangers on the street, or if poetry found its way back into all the popular publications (imagine: sports-themed poems in the “Faces in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated). People hardly say much about an apple a day keeping the doctor away, so my notions of supplanting it with a new prescription – one with a poem and a wise man, perhaps – are pure fantasy.
Most likely, I’ll have to be content with carving out a small corner for poetry. Giving my readers who’ve only ever shied away from the form something to take on their journey would be a plus.
Welcome to Poetry Week.
I hope you’ll enjoy the friends, acquaintances and strangers I’ve enlisted to help me re-kindle the affair.