The Utility of Poetry

an essay by Thomas Davis written after reading the poetry anthology, Indra’s Net

When I was a teenager, determined to become a poet and writer, Look Magazine, one of the United States’ most popular publications at the time, wrote an editorial that denigrated the utility of poetry. A lot of decades have passed since I read the editorial, but its assertion that poetry had no real use in a world filled with the marvels of science and technology still stirs me to a passion. As I thought back then, what an exercise in the hubris of trying to stir up controversy.

Look Magazine, of course, has been defunct for some time, and while I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at the Breadloaf Bookstore doing a book signing, Indra’s Net, published by Bennison Books (who also published my epic poem, The Weirding Storm, A Dragon Epic) came in the mail. An anthology made up of poems from an international collection of poets, Indra’s Net had felt like a meme that could dance like fireworks in a night sky ever since Deborah Bennison had first broached the idea with her intention of using it as a vehicle to support Book Bus, a non-profit dedicated to providing books to young people in places suffering from poverty and a lack of books. When the volume with its mesh of stylized flowers on the cover arrived, I couldn’t help but remember that long ago editorial. Ah, the revenge of time can be sweet indeed!

There was a use for the Look editorial, however—at least in a young poet’s mind. It made me think hard about poetry and what the uses of poems really are. The uses are not, as the editorial justifiably made plain, utilitarian. No one is going to drive a poem to work or take the hammer of its multiple meanings to construct a skyscraper. But poetry has been around a long time, and, as Mrs. Winger, the teacher-mother of my best friend in high school once told me, if you don’t like something that has given pleasure and life to scores of generations of smart people, maybe you ought to think about what you’re missing.

The value of Indra’s Net to me does not solely rest in having both my wife Ethel Mortenson Davis’s and my poems represented in it, although there is always pride in that. Rather, it has values congruent with the true worth of poetry in its pages.

I have read the work of many of its contributors for years. John Looker, for my money, is one of the most interesting poets writing in English today. Great poetry, verses the kind talked about around tables of poets reading and discussing their efforts at poetry, combines the art of emotion, thought, act, and significance with the discipline of craft and language into a contemplation that catches the human spirit and fills it with joy, delight, fear, hope, despair, laughter, and generational knowledge central to who we are as individuals and members of the human condition. If poetry is not an astrolabe of use to mariners, it does have aspects of an astrolabe to the human-earth-universe’s existence. It provides metaphorical stars that life can be guided by.

There is immense value in having people trying to write poetry getting together and discussing their work. Such groups provide a pathway into exploring what poetry can be inside each individual. Presentation and discussion can lead to firefly moments of language that can light the wonder in the body of poetic expression. Still, some poets, as in all occupations, especially if their poetry becomes a familiar presence in your life, have a special scintillation that makes them memorable.

Looker, with poems that tell of work, transitions, and the mediations between time and moments, represents what the marriage of art and craft can become in the hands of a master. Each poem is honed and snipped until it shines.

If Looker is a craftsman, however, Jim Kleinhenz is an enigma. He does not write poetry to elucidate. Instead, he writes puzzles that, like a Frank Lloyd Wright building that explodes from cramped space into expansiveness, become a way of knowing rather than of seeing. This is not poetry for the tweeter mind, locked into 140 characters, but as in Wallace Stevens’ best work, a challenge that forces the reader to think and explore, and sometimes study, until illumination lifts spirit and gives the elixir of discovery.

Betty Hayes Albright and A.J. Mark present another fractal of poetry’s immensely complicated crystal. Albright is a romantic that tends to send us to another universe where a combination of mystery and linkages into people and the earth sing with meaning. “I’d play the storm/swaying in brave acts/without roots,” she tells us, and she has the ability to put us in a bird’s body at the top of a tree during a ferocious storm, making us all feel brave. Mark, somewhat like Kleinhenz, is more metaphysical: “She is our transference of heaven,/A stunning imitation of light,” and it is in this transference and light that her poetry reaches beyond what is into a realm of pure spirit that illuminates why, in many ancient traditions, a stone breathes and a flower speaks.

Then there are the two Bennison published poets, Chris Moran and Glenda Kerney Brown. Their poems are not written solely out of spirit and imagination, but from the harsh realities of life. When they write a line it inevitably is carved from experience that, more often than not, is an act of metamorphosis, a changing from pain, despair, and what would, in many, be hopelessness into courage and belief in a spirit without physical or material limitations. If Looker is the poet of art and craft, Kleinhenz the poet of puzzles and illumination, and Albright and Mark the poets of natural and metaphysical imagination, Moran and Brown are the poets that bring home reality that does not flinch at raw truth, but gives all of us hope in what we ought to be as humans.

Cynthia Jobin who gave the title to Indra’s Net, for years was my blog-partner in exploring challenging traditional forms of poetry, always giving me, before her untimely death, the challenge of metered, rhymed, and/or even alliterated craft when we tried our hand at Celtic forms. I have also delighted for years in the work of Ina Schroeders-Zeeders, a poet from the Netherlands whose island in the Atlantic Ocean contains a brimming of story, thought, and powerful emotions; Sarah Whiteley who chisels rather than writes a poem, giving us crystalline images that tend to stick in the mind; and Fredrick Whitehead who can be wonderfully entertaining and profound all in the same tumble of words. Poetry as an exercise in entertainment and profound metaphor is not be sneezed at. It is in this context that I would also mention the work of that wild New Zealander, Bruce Goodman.

Part of what the Look editorial missed was the touchstone that I am trying to describe here. I have read these poets. I have watched their work develop and change for years. I read Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, or William Shakespeare partially for that reason. Poetry touches our lives in different ways based upon the personality, skill, and living of the poet, and if you let that touching get past the crust of who you are inside, always fearful of letting another sensibility invade you, there is comfort in the voices of poems as well in the attributes that each poet brings to the table of human communication.

But reading Indra’s Net reminded me of something else the Look editorial writer did not understand. I have never read a poem by Chris McLoughlin before, but his “Pijaykin” spilled wisdom into my head like it was a pitcher filled with imagination ready to provide water to a bone-dry garden.

Then there are the narratives of Elizabeth Leaper. As a storyteller, along with D.M. Denton and Art Wolffe, both masters, I can be caught by a strong narrative poem in a way that seems to complete and fulfill me. “Here we sit in the middle of a winter’s night,” Leaper says at the start of here poem, “Lambing”

darkling-light with frost and bitter cold,
while bold Orion stalks across the sky
watching where the stellar bear
points toward the far North Star…

In the end all poems tell stories, and stories make up the memories of our lives as we move from one place and event to another and build relationships that enrich and trouble us, stir love into our hearts, or make us basket-cases in the ship of history.

This narrative, enriched by intense images, “When snow’s gone dead with cold,” Edward Ahern writes; “I crouch at the foothills of listening,” Vanessa Kirkpatrick says; “How the clouds roil the sky’s calm/with their droplets of chaos,” Martin Shone sings, gives a portal into seeing what we cannot really see, the consciousness of another human being who is like, but unlike, us. This is the utility of poetry, the value of an anthology that collects consciousness’s together from all over the world: Great Britain, Canada, France, Australia, the United States, Africa, the Netherlands, and other distant places.

By greeting new voices with new sensibilities, delving beyond awareness that has become comfortable and familiar, letting Robert Okaji tell us that his “hands know the sadness of rock,” or Frédéric C. Martin imbue us with “A lost dolphin’s dream,/An angel walking on water,” we implant the possibility of growth within the shell of who we think we are. We see words that synapse currents that can change how we see and react to the universe in which we live.

Writing about an anthology always leaves something to be desired. When my Mom and Dad gave me a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s 1962 edition of Modern American ~ Modern British Poetry, two people mostly confused by a son who wanted to write poetry unleashed a torrent of word, contemplation, and emotion that has lasted to the day I am writing these words. I wish I could talk about all the poets in Indra’s Net. The truth is that I expect I’ll be exploring it for some time and wondering about how I could not have put in this essay this poet or that poet.

But there is a rhythm to essays in the same way that free verse has a rhythm, and the subject of this essay goes beyond the anthology Deborah Bennison has put together. “… My years stream/their weather,” Carol Rumens writes to her youngest child to introduce this volume. And poetry streams the substance of who each of us are inside the universe, inside generations that have gone and will yet come, and in this streaming, this cornucopia, poetry, I predict, will not age, but will be around for millennia that will hopefully still come.

20 Comments

Filed under Essays, poems, Poetry, Published Books, Thomas Davis

20 responses to “The Utility of Poetry

  1. Wow, Tom, this is very special. What a wonderful essay. I’m honoured that it was prompted by Indra’s Net. Thank you so much. I will share this on Facebook 🙂

  2. Tom, that’s a splendid tribute to all those involved in Indra’s Net, from Deborah Bennison who inspired and edited the book, to Carol Rubens who wrote the introduction, and to all those who contributed. Like you, I have been reading the whole anthology, slowly and carefully, and with great pleasure. I hope it will be bought widely because it gives a window on to contemporary poetry throughout the English-speaking world. And of course your essay fully answers the writer all those years ago who argued that poetry had no ‘utility’!

    • I hope too that it will sell widely. I agree that it does give a window on contemporary poetry throughout the English-speaking world. Plus, Ethel and I have poems in an anthology with John Stevens in it! I am so glad you liked the essay.

  3. Thomas, I thoroughly enjoyed your essay. Am trying to remember if I too read that article on “Look” magazine, since my parents subscribed to it. You and I are the same age so it’s quite likely we did read it at the same time. My reaction then would’ve been bafflement that anyone could dismiss poetry for being a non-utility. I’ve lived and breathed poetry my whole life and can’t imagine a world without it. That would be like a world without music and art.
    Anyway, thank you for this. I agree with all you said about the great poetry in this collection, and am quite amazed at being included in the company of you, Ethel, and all the others!

  4. Ah Betty, you are a splendid poet. I am glad you liked the essay. Ethel talked me into writing it. She wanted to make sure we made the point that the value in Indra’s Net is not based upon our work, but on the work of the rest of the poets, including you. Both Ethel and I too have “lived and breathed poetry” our whole lives, and I think it’s wonderful that poetry lives on while the Look editorial writer’s work is in a defunct magazine.

  5. Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    Thomas Davis writes on the utility of poetry, using the recently published Indra’s Net as a launching point.

  6. Wonderful essay, Thomas. Though I came to poetry late, in my twenties, I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since!

    • You are a wonderful poet, Robert. I enjoyed your poem in Indra’s Net and was excited to read your work published in O at the Edges. John Looker (Stevens) thinks that Indra’s Net is a good representation of the poetry being written in the English-speaking world today. Both Ethel, my wife, and I feel honored to be represented in the volume. I never argue with John since I consider him to be a master poet, one well worth reading and listening to. Thanks so much for the comment and the reblog.

  7. Thank you Daedalus Lex. What a great name!

  8. Thank you for this inspirational writing – and the introduction to some other poets…

  9. Pingback: The Utility of Poetry by Thomas Davis/fourwindowspress – The Peaceful Pub Poetry and Creative Writing Site

  10. I also really soaked up these words and I feel delighted and complimented to be mentioned within the essay, thank you. I am still exploring the poems, reading through them slowly during my lazy summer days. Here’s to the future of poetry and poets!

    • Anna, I really believe you are one of the most important poets publishing on the web. I am so busy currently that I am finding it difficult to get to people’s sites, but I have always deeply appreciate your poetry and was absolutely delighted you appeared in Indra’s Net. You really deserve what I consider to be an honor. Thanks for reading the essay.

  11. I look forward to there being a republishing of Indra’s Net, called forth by the exhaustion of the first edition and the demand from fresh would-be readers and I look forward to seeing your essay cum review included as an introduction. Its rightful place, I believe.

    • If Bennison Books decides to publish another anthology in the future, Ben Naga, I hope you are a part of it. I guess Indra’s Net has sold pretty well. It was number 1 in amazon.com’s anthology category for awhile, but putting a book together like this is exhausting. I am speaking from experience, having co-edited one anthology while we lived in New Mexico. Thanks for reading the essay. You are, as usual, as I noted in The Weirding Storm, one of my favorite people.

      • I might have submitted something for Indra’s New if I’d known about it. If there *is* another in the future please do let me know.

        I hope you know that you, Ethel and Betty among my favourite WoodPress friends and family too.

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