|October/November 2008: Are People Ready for Poetry?
We live in a busy, hectic time. Schedules are compressed, gratification must be instant, and
communication occurs in short emails. Can people today afford to take time out for poetry?
Actually, poetry is ideally suited to the needs of society today. Poetry is the most short and
intense form of communication known to man. A poem often packs the punch of an entire novel into
something that can be finished in a few minutes. As an added bonus, poetry helps us keep our
communication skills sharp, and exercises our intellectual ability as well.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose your friend tells you she just finished a great novel about the
Irish nationalists who revolted against England in 1798. She tells you how they were called
“croppies” because they wore their hair cropped short, and that the book has a sad ending when
they were defeated. Even if the idea of the novel appeals to you, when will you have time to read it?
But now let’s look at a poem by Seamus Heaney taken from his book Opened Ground (1998, Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, LLC.) that compresses this story into 131 words.
Requiem for the Croppies
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley . . .
no kitchens on the run,
no striking camp . . .
we moved quick and sudden
in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches
with the tramp.
A people hardly marching . . .
on the hike . . .
we found new tactics happening each day:
we'd cut through reins and rider with the pike
and stampede cattle into infantry,
then retreat through hedges
where cavalry must be thrown.
Until . . . on Vinegar Hill . . .
the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died,
shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed,
soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us
without shroud or coffin
and in August . . .
the barley grew up
out of our grave.
Given a chance, poetry can profoundly affect our lives in three ways: It helps us to see ourselves
in a different way; it gets us through difficult times; and it connects us with other people around the
world and across the centuries. Plato said, “Poetry is more important than history.” In other words,
poetry speaks to issues that are more relevant to us as humans, and speaks in a way that is more
meaningful to us, than any history book.
Shelley wrote a short poem that reinforces Plato’s point. In his bleak vision the transience of
political power is strongly reinforced, but Shelley’s view of the world tells us that while art outliving
politics, even art crumbles with time.
I met a traveler
from an antique land
who said: `Two vast
and trunk-less legs of stone
stand in the desert.
Near them, on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered
visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip,
and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well
those passions read
which yet survive,
stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them
and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal
these words appear—
"My name is Ozymandias,
king of kings:
look on my works,
ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
of that colossal wreck,
boundless and bare
the lone and level sands
stretch far away.'
So if art outlasts even the most powerful of political power, but even art is subject to the decay of
time, then is everything really hopeless in the long run? Perhaps the answer can be found in this
little haiku written by Ryusui (translation by Peter Beilenson) in the early 1700’s:
A lost child crying
stumbling over the dark fields . . .
Perhaps we really are lost children crying while stumbling over dark fields, but at least we can
enjoy those momentary flashes of life’s fireflies.