I’m always answering the question, “Why poetry?”
The question assumes different shapes depending on who’s asking. A tinder match will say, “But what are you going to do with that degree?” A relative at my grandmother’s funeral will roll her eyes when I tell her I’m retiring from teaching middle school algebra to become a poet and ask me, “Can’t you ever do anything practical?” A college classmate in a different field will tell me, “Crystal, you are so smart. Why not make a difference instead?”
For awhile, I asked myself similar questions. I felt guilty for loving and pursuing poetry when so many people I loved devalued it, considered it trivial. When there were so many openings in jobs others found essential. I spent many days considering dropping out of my MFA program (which I love) to join the army instead, to attend medical school, to do something others would respect.
To process my questions, anxieties, grief, doubt, and depression, I turned to poetry like I’ve always done. Every poem I read refracted light differently. One day, the light made circular rainbows on my ceiling. Trapped in nostalgia, Jack Gilbert reminded me a life isn’t built in the uncommon or the grand, but rather the mundane. He says about his late wife, “What I miss most about / her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.”
Another day, the light was a straight stream of luminesce on the doorway. Warsan Shire reminded me, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” I ended up here for a reason.
Time and time again, poetry shifted my gaze and restored my mental health. It gave me access to experiences I’ve never had and clarity on ones I did. So many poems made me feel less alone in my mistakes, and brought cognition to mistakes I didn’t always realize I was making.
Like Katherine Larson’s poem “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees,” where she reminds her lover, “every time I make love for love’s sake alone, / I betray you.”
And Lisel Mueller’s poem “Fiction,” that expresses the familiar nostalgia and grief we’ve all had at the end of a friendship. She longs in lyrics, “if only we could go on / and meet again, shy as strangers.”
And Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem “For the Dogs that Barked at Me on the Sidewalks in Connecticut,” which I’ve read nearly every week for the past three months, because, I too, “must apologize for how adulthood has rendered me.” and fear vulnerability. Like him, “I am afraid to touch / anyone who might stay / long enough to make leaving / an echo” and have, for awhile been “…in the mood / to be forgotten.”
And Mueller’s persona poem, “Monet Refuses the Operation,” where Monet refuses cataract surgery. He tells the doctor in the poem:
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
I read that and know our weaknesses and strengths are the same state of being. That, over time, our weaknesses grow into our greatest gifts.
And when I’m deep in introspective reflection, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge reminds me in “Winter Whites,” that present, past and future aren’t simple, linear, or singular. “An experience is not one experience. / I go over it again and again, as it assimilates in me” she begins and, eventually, four sections later, ends the meditation with:
Different species communicate and energies of environment and inhabitants merge.
My memory travels into the memory of another with increasing energy, and an event clarifies as ‘winter,’ for example.
And when I’m feeling distant from friends who still have faith, Danez Smith’s poem, “Dear White America” expresses what I’ve felt since high school, “Take your god back. Though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.”
I eventually stopped questioning my decision to pursue poetry. I realized that poetry is practical. Reading poetry is like having intimate encounters with close friends. Over time, it changes our worldview, how we understand ourselves and the people around us. It builds the empathy and connection so crucial to a happy, fulfilled life. And everyone could use that. What good is friendship without understanding? What good is money without wisdom? What good is a stable job or nice house or fancy car if we lack gratitude, reflection, or introspection? Poetry can teach us lessons in how to access and process these feelings.
I realized eventually I didn’t need to change myself; I needed to change the way other people saw poetry.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.