Poetry for the Soul

In the late 1990’s, as president of Berkshire Community College, I helped the Berkshire Institute for Lifetime Learning get started by providing space and administrative support. I promised myself that as soon as I retired I would take courses with these avid learners from diverse and fascinating backgrounds.

It took more years than I expected (a topic for another post), but last fall I took a poetry course as part of the Academy for Lifelong Learning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On my own, I do not read poetry. There are poems I love that I have learned as part of an English literature  course or because I went to a colleague's reading, but I never simply pick up a book of poems the way I do a novel.  I thought a course would be an incentive to read and perhaps discover what there is to love about poetry.

Our text was The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry edited By Sue Ellen Thompson, who happens to be a wonderful local poet I have heard read and lecture on several occasions.

Each week we read between forty and fifty poems, and then, based solely on what we liked, we hated, or we were simply moved by, we read them aloud and talked about them. Our facilitators, John Ford and John Miller, didn’t “teach,” but created a place where anyone could share, and agree or disagree with the opinion or interpretation that was offered.

While the course was going on I also began reading Why Poetry,” by Matthew Zapruder. I have always believed that stories are how we learn about ourselves and each other. But why poetry?

According to the poet Wallace Stevens, the role of the poet is not to instruct or to comfort, but “to help people live their lives.”  Zapruder says that the poet “transforms the material of the real…in order to create a space of contemplation and imagination and possibility.”  

This may all seem rather vague, but set in the context of our increasingly frantic and connected lives, it begins to make more sense. “The more we are colonized by our devices,” says Zapruder, “and the ‘information’ and ‘experiences’ that they supposedly deliver, the more we need a true experience of unmonetized attention.” I think it is no accident that to be “wired” is both to be connected and to be filled with nervous energy.

In his afterword, Zapruder addresses the role of poetry and poets in a time of crisis, a time of “unfettered catastrophizing, which will sap our energy and distract and drain us.” Stevens wrote on the eve of WW II that we had to “resist the pressure of the real.” Zapruder points out that this pressure has only increased as our electronics surround us with “a deafening sound composed of everyone’s thoughts, opinions, commentaries, clever jokes, contradictory certainties, intense worries, gateless fears.”  I know I feel assaulted just reading this.

Poetry is not the antidote because it is a form of escapism, but because it is a place where the imagination, individually and collectively, can flourish. And it is imagination that leads people to solve problems. Poems are places where people who are divided, connect.

I am not sure my short class led me to this place. But it did make me want to write poetry, and enlarge that place of imagination in my own life.  

In the spirit of my class – sharing a poem because it moved me - I offer this poem by Mark Turpin. I love this poem because I can feel the motion and the rhythm, because it leaves me in awe of the hammer and its wielder’s destructive power and because I can hear this poem sing.

Sledgehammer’s Song

The way you hold the haft,

The way it climbs a curve,

               A manswung curve,

The way it undoes what was done.


The way a stake sinks,

               Cement spits or a stud

               Spins off its nails.


The way shoulders shrug.

The way the breezes waft

               And wake and tease a cheek,

The way it undoes what was done.

The way a cabinet cracks

               And rakes and bares

               The nail-scarred wall beneath.


The way a stance is spread,

The way the steel head pings

               And thrums and thuds,

The way it undoes what was done.

The way a bathtub breaks:

               Pieces barrowed, porcelain

               Left in a bin.


The way the sight is stark.

The way the weight wills the arms,

               The back and heart,

The way it undoes what was done.

The way the weight is weighted,

Stalling the swing

The sorrow mid-arc.


Barbara Viniar1 Comment