Why Poetry?

I’ve had some level of interest in poetry for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, it has occupied a position of much greater significance in my life. As with any topic of deep interest, poetry inspires questions, not the least of which is why. Why poetry? Why does it mean so much to me, especially when so many other people just can’t be bothered?

Poems have the power to draw us deeply into unfamiliar contexts. Take the following poem for example, in which the author, a child of biracial parents, imagines a lighter-skinned version of herself.

Blond
Natasha Trethewey

Certainly it was possible — somewhere
in my parents’ genes the recessive traits
that might have given me a different look:
not attached earlobes or my father’s green eyes,
but another hair color — gentleman-preferred,
have-more-fun blond. And with my skin color,
like a good tan — an even mix of my parents’ —
I could have passed for white.

When on Christmas day I woke to find
a blond wig, a pink sequined tutu,
and a blond ballerina doll, nearly tall as me,
I didn’t know to ask, nor that it mattered,
if there’d been a brown version. This was years before
my grandmother nestled the dark baby
into our creche, years before I’d understand it
as primer for a Mississippi childhood.

Instead, I pranced around our living room
in a whirl of possibility, my parents looking on
at their suddenly strange child. In the photograph
my mother took, my father — almost
out of the frame — looks on as Joseph must have
at the miraculous birth: I’m in the foreground —
my blond wig a shining halo, a newborn likeness
to the child that chance, the long odds,
might have brought.

Few scenarios could lie further from my own experience, but the poem allows me into its private world with such immediacy that I imagine myself in the speaker’s place. I ponder the same questions she does, and I begin to feel what she feels. The context is unique, but the emotions it inspires are universally human. In the space of one short poem, I’ve imagined life in someone else’s shoes – someone with a background far different from mine. Every new poem offers this possibility.

I would argue that there is nothing we need more as human beings than to connect regularly with this level of depth, particularly with people from unfamiliar backgrounds. Article after article will tell you that despite the best efforts of technology, we live in an age of ever-increasing social isolation. Developing a poetry habit can help to bridge this disconnect, and as with any learned behavior, lasting change requires repeated exposure. The ultimate promise of poetry, as Jane Hirshfield writes in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, is that “by changing ourselves, one by one…,” we might also change “…the outer world that selves create and share.” It may be a cliche to suggest that poetry, or any art, has the power to change the world, but to my ear, it’s a cliche that rings true. Poems have tremendous potential to inspire both personal and social change.

 

IKEA: A poem in progress

Not like that girl in that book
that became a movie with Natalie Portman
she had nowhere else to go
so she slept in a tent at Wal-Mart
No, I mean I want to move
out of my apartment today
into the land of name brands
I can neither pronounce nor understand
I want to live at IKEA
Bring me a life
where the beds are always made
and the most challenging of choices
lies between the two shower curtains
and their polka-dotted patterns
I want a life
that’s easy to assemble
full of color-coded parts
and an arrow to follow
when I lose my way
Bring me a life of designs
full of long clean lines
where every exchange begins and ends
with the promise of sugar and cinnamon
I want to live at IKEA

The Michael Caine Lifestyle

One of my primary concerns about American society is that we haven’t benefited sufficiently from the wisdom of Michael Caine.  In the late 1980s, Caine made a workshop-style acting instruction documentary called Acting in Film.  It’s a fascinating piece of work, full of genuine insights about movie acting.  It’s also a masterpiece of accidental self-parody.
I’ve always held that Caine’s true intention with the video was to teach people about more than just acting.  I like to imagine it’s his manual for everyday living and that he’s encouraging his audience to adopt the Caine lifestyle.  In that spirit, I’ve selected a few key clips and included some of my personal notes about each.  Watch the clips.  Examine my notes.  Live a better life.
Video #1 Notes:
  1. Never change eyes.
  2. Using a single eye, always look into just one of another person’s eyes at a time.
  3. Blinking weakens you. Never blink.
  4. All cameras will love you like a mistress or lover.
  5. Theater actors don’t listen.
Video #1
Video #2 Notes:
  1. Oh! Calcutta! was a naked musical.
  2. Never be nude because things will continue to move.
  3.  Always fight your tears.
Video #2 (in which Caine reflects on some of the lessons from his documentary)
Video #3 Notes:
  1. Focus always ends immediately to the right of your face.
  2. Always move backward and then walk slowly forward when you have something really important to say.
Video #3