Is Poetry an Art or an Artifact?
About the Project: This essay was written in response to a question posed to me: Is poetry, as an art form, dying?
I always thought poetry was boring and obscure. Elizabethan language is hard enough to understand without being shrouded in metaphors and double meaning. And who has the patience to reread the same lines over and over again? In a world of fast knowledge, fast convenience and fast—well, everything, we are not accustomed to pumping the breaks. We don’t want to have to slow down and think. We want overnight shipping, to rent the movie and watch it in one click, to get to the point without all that unnecessary detail. We are Daniel-san with Mr. Miyagi. We want to learn karate without having to first wax the car and paint the fence. We want it all now. It’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s sonnets fitting into a world like that. In fact, I think I could safely say that poetry as an art form is struggling to survive and given the slow nature of poetry and its opposition to the modern world, it’s not all that hard to understand why. But, is poetry an art that stands the test of time, or an artifact on its way to extinction? At the risk of sounding indecisive, I think it’s a little bit of both. Like most things that survive the test of time, poetry is a lot more than its most basic form, and because of this, it has its roots in many other manifestations of art we happily consume today. And, like any other historical “artifact,” we can take cues and lessons from poetry that improve our society as a whole through the way we think about education and language.
Early on in my education, I was encouraged to do well in math and science. Science, of course, has its clear benefits: You learn about nature, the body, chemicals, ecosystems and how everything is interconnected and symbiotic. Math, though, was a different story (at least past the rudimentary phases). With every cram session for every high school algebra exam, there was always this nagging question in the back of my mind. What was the point? I couldn’t really wrap my head around why I needed to be learning advanced algebra if I didn’t plan on going into a math or science-centered field of work. High school teachers, it turns out, are no strangers to this line of questioning. And my teacher's answer conjured an “aha” moment in me that would carry me through to college calculus and trigonometry. She said that math isn’t just solving a problem, it’s also learning how to problem solve. Of course, I’m paraphrasing because this was over 10 years ago, but I still remember it clicking. I saw the bigger picture. Math is important! Because it teaches you to think critically. Nothing else does that, right?
Actually, I would argue that poetry does. The solution and method are different than an algebraic equation, but poetry works different muscles than algebra does. Poetry forces you to think critically about the world and human emotions, and then how to communicate those thoughts. It forces you to not just analyze words and their meanings, but also their sounds and their syllables. In Robert Frosts’ “A Dust of Snow,” Frost illustrates change, not only by using words that mean change, but also by gradually changing the length of his words, the pattern of his phrases, the syllable count and connotation of his words. He forces the reader to experience change as they are reading about it.
Poetry is just as much a puzzle as it is an art. Every word is carefully selected by its beat, rhythm, rhyme, meaning, double meaning and metaphor. When master poets put this puzzle together, it reveals something beautiful and true about the world and humanity. But, they don’t have pieces from a box, they have pieces from about 50,000 boxes. And there is no guide, nor are there directions. A poet is equipped with their heart and their brain. Nothing else. Yes, math teaches you critical thinking with formulas and missing pieces, but poetry teaches you to think critically about life and what it means to be human. How often have you heard someone say about a hard situation or a relationship in your lifetime, “I just wish there was a formula to fix this”? Poetry has no formula. It only has a set of rules. You can choose to follow them or not, because they are only a blueprint.
Similarly, poetry’s encouragement for breaking the rules also encourages you to have a mind of your own. History has celebrated poets who write in a certain medium, but then alter it to fit their own style. Think of John Keats with odes, or E.E. Cummings with the sonnet. Both found a style that compelled them, then found it needed to be reshaped and altered to fit their message. In every other subject and every other circumstance, children are not taught to do things their own way. In math, we learn to memorize a method of solving a problem. Always use that method—no shortcuts. In science, we learn methodical experimentation and record keeping, to notice patterns and results. In history, we’re taught to memorize facts and identify how certain historical events have impacted the modern world. Poetry, though, is a little harder to discern and little easier to argue. It encourages independent thought and debate over words. In fact, I believe most poets had hoped for it. Poetry in education, to me, is symbolic of our problem in education. Of course we should learn facts. Facts are important. But we’re so busy teaching facts that we have forgotten that we also need to teach kids how to think instead of what to think. There are few subjects as suitable as poetry to facilitate that lesson. And its benefits propel children into successful college years, careers and informed citizenry. But I don’t think poetry’s usefulness ends at studying it as a historical artifact. We can also learn from it as an art form that has evolved, adapted and merged with other art forms that all have a common theme: storytelling.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has told stories with excruciating detail—details that are neither important to the point of the story, nor ones that she seems to be able to recall with any sort of accuracy. Each and every time she tells me one of these stories, I lose my patience within minutes. It occurred to me recently that this “get to the point” mentality, while incredibly useful in meetings or a diagnosis from a physician, is incredibly harmful to storytelling. I would venture to say that every form of entertainment is a type of storytelling. I can’t count the number of times I have been watching a movie with someone and they keep asking questions about the plot only to have them answered a scene or two later. If they would just wait and let the writers, director and producers tell the story in the order it was meant to be absorbed, instead of insisting on knowing everything right away, perhaps they would take something a lot more meaningful away from the story. But stories that are complex with meaning are not always the modern sensations of the world. How many layers are there to the plot of Twilight? I dare say, there’s barely one. And yet it has taken the world by storm by dumbing down literature. It is the literary version of a binge-watchable television show.
Adversely, poetry can only be consumed at slow speeds. And even if you get to the end quickly, the point is probably hidden somewhere in the middle anyway. You have to sit, read, be patient and look closely. Many of those words are curse words in our modern world. It’s why many people have no patience for art galleries or interpretive dance performances. People don’t want to have to think too hard about what they’re looking at. They want the answers to be easy to reach, on the surface. But great artists, storytellers and poets aren’t trying to hide the answers from you to be cruel or even to be high-brow. They are doing it to emphasize the impact of the answers and to create human emotions in you that connect you to the world. The lesson that artists, filmmakers, television writers, playwrights and musicians have all learned from poetry is that communicating easily with your audience is not as powerful as communicating effectively, which is what separates the award-winning and life-changing art from the fluff entertainment beloved by teeny boppers everywhere.
Truth and humanity cannot be discovered by simply blazing through books about vampires and werewolves in a single night. Should people just cut to the chase and say what they mean? Yes, to a certain degree. But I have never learned how to master the art of cooking by throwing all the ingredients in a pan and cranking up the heat. I have never understood the plot of a movie by watching it on fast forward. I have never heard heartbreak in a song by listening to it one time. Have you?
It is in the slowing down, the parsing out, the dissecting, that we can glean wisdom, knowledge and truth from others. It is in getting in the kitchen and following the directions, step-by-step, that we learn to make a meal. It is in watching a movie attentively that we connect to characters and understand their story. It is in listening to a song over and over that we finally gain understanding from it. It is in slowing down and reading lines and deciphering symbols that we get the privilege of wisdom from great minds.
Poetry in its most basic form may be drying up as a widely consumed form of entertainment. But, its essence lives on. It inhabits every truly good book, song, movie, painting, drawing, and work of art we see and experience. It connects and binds us together. It makes us feel understood and less alone. I don’t think it is for me to say whether or not prose and verse has a place in the modern world any more than it is for me to say whether or not cancer will ever be cured or if Da Vinci had good form. All I know for certain is that a single line of words can change the course of a life. I know, because it changed mine. And for that reason, we should never give up on it. We should never stop listening.