What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions


In Defense of Useful Poetry

Somehow I had forgotten to include, in my “Works Online” page above, the two poems and the mini-essay in the second issue of the uber cool -esque magazine. (I’ve since rectified that error. And truly, you should take the time to explore the other poets’ offerings there.) I’m republishing the little essay below. I think it still applies.


In Defense of Useful Poetry

I hadn’t planned to be an apologist for engaged poetics, but after seeing a comment at Ron Silliman’s blog calling the folks at Poets for Living Waters (a group I’m happy to be counted among) “loudmouths,” and having heard reiterated ad nauseum the bromide that “poetry makes nothing happen” (a phrase well set in the jewel of Auden’s poem, but usually clunky in discussions of poetics), and further having the opportunity to write something for -esque’s ifesto, here I go.

The notion that poetry makes nothing happen seems to arise to counter the notion Shelley put forth that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And surely that’s hyperbole. Not to mention too heavy a burden to take on, sitting down to scribble on a blank page. If any thoughtful person took it to heart she’d never write another couplet. But wait. Do we really believe poetry makes NOTHING happen? James Baldwin said, “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…The world changes according to how people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way…people look at reality, then you can change it.” So it seems it might be worth a try to write poems that do that, that change the way people see their reality. As usual, the middle way between the two extremes, “poetry makes nothing happen” and “poets are the unacknowledged [and unelected!] legislators of the world,” arrives at the truth.

That said, I have to admit, being the judge of a monthly poetry contest, that attempting to engage the big issues, the things a poet might want to change (read: enlarge) the reader’s perspective on, like politics, ecology, religion or philosophy, runs the risk of making very bad poems. It’s too easy to fall into didactic preaching, or ranting, or sap (mea culpa to all three! I should burn my notebooks). But lots of things worth doing are hard. And writing poems that attempt to be “art for art’s sake” is no more a guarantee of making artful poems than any other approach. But the right chickens with the right wheelbarrows can get your message across. Which isn’t to say a poet should be afraid to just say it. Auden certainly did. Just say it, that is. Witness the poem from which the above is taken.

I once wrote a poem that dealt with something that for me was occupying a lot of my mental space. Surviving on a resident’s stipend, with two small children, I had chosen to buy the front-loading washer (to save something like 40 gallons of water per load!) even though it meant that I had to wait a while before we could afford a dryer to go with it. I installed, in the middle of a sunny spot in the back yard, a nifty collapsible clothes-line that met our needs so well I ended up thinking, who needs a dryer? Using all that electricity when the sun can do a fine job. Until, at a certain point in early summer, hordes of tiny celadon grasshoppers decided to try out their mandibles on my calves every time I went out to hang the wash. The ones that survived being brushed off –– they popped with distressing ease! –– grew up to make lace of my roses’ leaves. Pesticides were unthinkable, but tempting. So I wrote a poem called “Dilemma,” trying to decide which would be the lesser evil, using the dryer or spraying the yard. Because to me, it was a dilemma. Feedback online included a comment from one woman who couldn’t believe anyone would be so foolish as to take these things so seriously. So I changed the title to “Fool’s Dilemma.” And understood that it would be a while before that poem would make sense to most readers.

If one is a thoughtful person, considering the repercussions of one’s choices, I don’t know how one could not engage these issues in one’s poetry. Looking around oneself, between ecological collapse, government corruption, religious misunderstandings leading to violence, patriarchy poisoning all our relationships, and pollution poisoning everything else, how could one NOT find these things bubbling up in one’s poems? Whether or not any given poem turns out to be useful will depend on the craft of the poet and the receptivity of the reader. But let’s lay to rest the idea that poetry doesn’t make anything happen. It may not make the things happen we want to make happen as quickly as we’d like to see them happen, but that’s not the same thing as making nothing happen. Poetry runs like a stream parallel to life, and it’s there, always, for everyone to dip a hand in and refresh themselves.

So how best to offer them a drink that does that, that allows them to return to the challenge renewed, perhaps even better equipped? Craft, yes. And intention. Do the words flow from a loving place? Make of your heart a compass, and make north compassion, east, wisdom, south, humility, and west, courage. In another old poem, “Poetry: A Syllabus,” I say, “Park your carcass right here and we’ll chat/about poetry and how we can live it.” To write a poem that speaks deeply from one human being to another (and I think all useful poems do that) one has to live fully as a human being, which means humanely. Isn’t that the news we hope people get from our poems? It is for me. I guess I’m with the visual artist Hogarth, who, when chastised for creating what some called propaganda instead of art (his famous “Beer Street” hangs in my breakfast nook as a reminder), said that he’d rather lessen humanity’s suffering even a little than have created the works of Vermeer. A little humor never hurts, either. I opted for the dryer, btw.