For National Poetry Month, Conundrum Press has asked our poets, writers, and contributors to offer their thoughts on poetry. We will be publishing reflections throughout the month.
Imagine a world without poetry. Go ahead, try it. It’s difficult to do.
Begin at the beginning, then. A small band of early human beings huddle at the mouth of a a chilly cave on a winter night that seems interminable, just like the last and the one that comes next. The people are, quite frankly, bored out of their small, thick skulls. And then one old woman’s slow humming becomes a chanting as she is taken with the impulse to weave from memory a story of those who came before, facing the east and anticipating morning, when the antelope would sprint across the sun-splashed plain stretching out to the horizon and . . . no, hold on. No poetry. Only tedium and shivering all night long under your smelly bison pelt.
The earliest texts we have from approximately 5,000 years ago originated in ancient Sumeria and turn out to be the equivalent of merchants’ records. Poetry doesn’t emerge until several hundred years later but since we’re doing away with it, we have just the cuneiform symbols telling us how many goats and jugs of wine were sold to Bruce on Wednesday.
Homer, as soon as he stands up to speak to the assembled, is ushered out of the hall and someone is overheard to say, “What he going on about, this Trojan War thing?” Sappho takes her lover on the isle of Lesbos and we don’t even get a single erotic fragment. Cattalus is just a horny Roman plagued by ennui, which he keeps to himself. Ovid changes not at all.
No Bible. The Hebrews list, matter of factly, how many frogs troubled Pharaoh, how many Egyptian babies died in the plague, and so on. No psalms. No Sermon on the Mount, just a reference to the event, as if in a day planner, and a brief notation to indicate the subject of the talk was peace and love and humility, delivered by a nice young man who later got nailed to a tree.
“So,” says the anonymous speaker at the outset of the epic Beowulf. And then stops.
Po-Chu-i remains just a government bureaucrat in a far Chinese province and accepts his baldness without comment. Rumi settles for penning flavorless theological tracts when his dizziness passes. Chaucer scribes at court and is otherwise silent. Dante merely bitches about his enemies in prose and is forgotten. Milton is allowed Areopagitica but not Paradise Lost.
Shakespeare writes a summary account of two young, star-crossed lovers meeting at a masked ball and instead of speaking their greetings in two beautifully turned sonnets, they just mumble their way through teen awkwardness and the Bard puts down his quill pen rather than even try the balcony scene denuded of poetic art.
Blake never imagines his bright-burning tyger and settles for being a hosier like his father, occasionally dropping a stocking and trembling in the corner with visions but writing none of it down. Keats dies in his little room by the Spanish Stair in Rome without a single poem to his name.
Shelley drowns in the Gulf of Spezia and proves his assertion that certain legislators are unacknowledged. Robert and Elizabeth Browning fall in love, so there’s that, but none of us ever hear about their shared passion. Oscar Wilde still suffers terribly his incarceration and produces De Profundis but not The Ballad of Reading Gaol and this means far fewer lipstick kisses on his tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Jim Morrison never makes it there at all, ending up instead in the Navy.
Frost mends his fence and stops by the woods on a snowy evening, but takes the road more traveled. Ferlinghetti opens a bookstore in San Francisco but sells only cookbooks, biographies, and shop manuals, and it closes within the year. Ginsburg never howls, having never heard Whitman’s yawp. Anne Sexton’s madness is no less poignant, to her anyway, but she gasses herself without ruminating on The Starry Night, as does Plath, who gets along fine with her Daddy and finds nothing remarkable about Ted Hughes at the party where they meet and so neither bites his cheek nor marries him—and neither of them writes a damned thing. Maya Angelou stares at the caged bird in the quiet of her apartment.
Commercials describe the surfactant qualities of soap, how the car’s internal combustion engine operates, and how the corn flakes are extruded from the machine, encouraging you to buy precisely none of it. The radio offers only news, talk shows, and instrumental music, unless the bastards have also taken that away. Coffee shops are half populated and devoid of goatees and purple tinted hair. There are half as many MFA programs and those that do exist feature only well adjusted prose writers, none of whom sheepishly claim, “I used to write poems.”
In fact, the very language we use contains probably only a few hundred words stripped of nuance and bleached of verve—effects which we can’t quite communicate because there is no metaphor allowed. The loss of the oxymoron alone is cause to weep, an action we can’t label hyperbolic, to say nothing of the void left by the absence of alliteration, consonance, and echoing sonics of rhyme.
OK, you get the picture. Poetry is woven so deeply into our world, we can’t see its origins and don’t recognize its broad presence infusing everything. We rarely acknowledge the bones of our cultural institutions all have a rich marrow of poetry. When people tell me they avoid poetry, I consider them fools for not knowing the sea in which they swim. To remove it would be to drain the flavors from our foods, the colors from our eyes, the tone from our voices. What a poor life indeed it would be.
Chris Ransick, Denver Poet Laureate from 2006 - 2010, is an award-winning author of five books of poetry and fiction, including Language for the Living and the Dead (2013). He has worked as a journalist, editor, professor, and speaker, and has served on his city’s public library board, his state’s humanities board of directors, and on the PEN Freedom to Write Committee. His first book, Never Summer, won a 2003 Colorado Book Award for Poetry and all his titles — including A Return to Emptiness, Lost Songs & Last Chances, and Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams — are available from Conundrum Press.
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