In anticipation of our March 5th Poetry Slam First Tuesday, enjoy this essay where I attempt to convince you that poetry is worth your time:
Today’s poem is called “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish.
While I love this poem by MacLeish, it is difficult to say exactly what he means by “a poem should not mean, but be.” Perhaps that is the point.
Were old Archie alive today, I would love to put the following question to him: What separates a poem from other forms of writing?
Here are my answers:
- Performance – a poem is designed to be shared
- Durability – a poem should be memorable
All the tricks of poetry- meter, repetition, rhyme, the controlling image, are hooks that the human brain has an easy time holding on to. Even a poem that is reputedly free verse, when spoken aloud, should reveal an ease of speech and recall that plain prose doesn’t necessarily possess.
In fact, for a poem to “be” at all, someone must be thinking about it.
Let’s all hop in the way-back machine and see if we can figure out why people started telling poems to one another in the first place.
Stories in Pre-History
It has taken literacy and writing an obnoxiously long time to catch on. While it behooved traders to keep track of their stock by making marks on handy surfaces, your average proto-person couldn’t be bothered with such things, let alone picking up a magazine.
Talking, however, and singing, well these things came naturally.
Nobody can say when the first group of hunters sat around a campfire and listened to one in their number sing, often with useful information like where to find food embedded within the song.
It is just as hard to identify the points at which it became common to gather the family around you and tell your sons and daughters to stop hitting each other, then settle them down with a fantastic tale that also instructs them how to behave towards their siblings.
Because stories told with a meter, rhyme, or powerful imagery were easier to remember, they were easier to re-tell. These stories could survive generations of re-telling, elaboration, subtraction, and yet still contain the most important information.
Survival of the fittest story.
In the eco-system of ideas, to be forgotten is to die. To be repeated is to reproduce, and to be easily reproduce-able is to be fit.
These days, we use a whole suite of media, films, books, internet memes, for the same purpose: to remember.
We are well accustomed to movies based off musicals based off books based off YouTube videos. Repetition of the same types of story is everywhere.
Oration continues to be important today, with political leaders and activists using old techniques of public speaking to sway crowds to action, or a decision, or a certain feeling.
Where does poetry fit in to all of this? Where doesn’t it fit? There are armies of copy-writers, graphic designers, advertisers, whose sole occupation in life is to create something that you can’t forget.
As a storyteller, that is your occupation as well. Why not study to old techniques then, if they’ve lasted this long? Why not take a moment to explore the history of ideas as expressed through poetry and see for yourself what secrets you might learn? Poetry still has a power over us, even today, but don’t take my word for it:
Damon Arrindell is the Slam Master of Seattle. Hear stories from him and your neighborhood slam-poets March 5th at Roy St.
P.S. I was going to try for four Rocky and Bullwinkle references in this article, but my editor informs me that three is Badenov.