Who Needs Poetry?

By Saliers, Don E. | The American Organist, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Who Needs Poetry?


Saliers, Don E., The American Organist


Not long ago I gave a talk on Rainer Maria Rilke and Mary Oliver. Those of you who know these poets may ask, "Why on earth did you pair those two?" They seem unmatched: the brooding, elegiac Rilke and the fresh-from-the-woods Oliver, the Germanic penchant for philosophical reflection contrasted with the American receptivity to the natural and the sensual; the dark and the light, the pessimistic and the hopeful. Yet anyone who has read both soon realizes that these contrasts are too simple if we pay attention to more than one or two of their poems. Something of world and of us is revealed in both.

Comparisons between Rilke and Oliver are worthwhile, but not for everyone. The more basic question in our present culture is: Why bother with poetry at all? A colleague of mine in ethics quipped: "Poetry deals with feelings, emotions, and imaginary ways of looking at the world. We need objective truth in a time of political distortion and manipulation." When words are cheap and human speech seems simply to shout our prejudices, isn't a poetic way of approaching the world too deceptive or confusing?

Yes, of course, there is poor poetry-and a lot of it-and human imagination can serve corrupt intentions. The same can and must be said about music! Like music, poetry can be used to avoid what is real, and for dehumanizing ends, as in the Nazi youth songs, crude sexism, or in the clichés of advertising. The idea that poetry diminishes thought, however, is an all-too-easy distortion. On the contrary, good poetry, like good music, has to do with seeing and hearing the world more vividly, more thoughtfully.

I have just finished re-reading Jane Hirshfield's brilliant book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). If you have only one book to read in seeking an answer to the question "Who needs poetry?," this is the one. Good poetry is a power in the world that can transform what we see, hear, and touch. A good poem opens us to what is so often hidden from our thinking and from our senses. …

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