The world is always ending, but through poetry it is born again and again and again.
When I say “world,” I mean not only the macro-world—the world outside me, currently devastated by contemporary viruses such as COVID-19, racism, sexism, climate change, poverty, etc.—but also the micro-world, the one within me, crafted genetically and epigenetically, over countless generations in conjunction with my own meaning-making machine: my imagination.
The American modernist poet William Carlos Williams “make[s] two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and:
A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
Regarding Williams’ ideas about this imaginative machine of poetry, I promise that nothing has helped me suffer these apocalypses more than poems. Their power to sustain me through different darknesses lies in their “intrinsic, undulant and physical […] character.” Williams implies that poetry’s essential leanness, its concentrated form, catalyzes us to physically and emotionally move out of our confusing, “ill-defined matter[s]”—such as physical loads (debt, strained relationships, meaningless work) and spiritual loads (illness, addictions, catastrophic and ordinary losses).
How does poetry’s character help us do this?
Similar to classical tragedies and some types of therapy, poetry helps unstick us from these tricky places, places that like quicksand may appear stable, but are actually traps where we sink. But of course, we sink! We sink, we fall—regardless—because we’re human; however, if we stay sunk or fell, we’re doomed. Poetry’s “perfect economy” will not save us from collapse, but it has the power to drive us out of collapse. Poetry liberates us from the bondage of our habits, our “comfortable” ways of feeling, doing, being. It reveals our authentic hidden selves to our false selves so that we can be reborn.
If I sound melodramatic or too Romantic, fine. Go elsewhere and live in the multiple apocalypses occurring in the worlds without poetry. Take science as a cure; take religion; take money; take—God forbid!—conspiracy theories. See how things go for you and yours.
Poetry—made by humans / inspired by muses (aka divine powers that are greater than ourselves)—speaks to the still small voice within us, the one too vulnerable to speak for itself. A good poem (and there are so many, and they are everywhere; they come in all shapes and sizes, and they have the longest shelf life of all literary genres) lances a festering emotion; it names our particular furies so that we can move beyond them, so that we may understand our rage. For what is rage but a dustcover for grief?
And grief is the golden emotion.
Fundamentally, poetry is born of grief. As contemporary American poet Robert Hass writes, “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking” (“Meditation at Lagunitas”).
If, through reading poetry we can penetrate the surface of our experience to fathom our grief, then we might heal our selves faster. In sharing our particular griefs with others, we may heal our world/s.
Featured Image: Design by Giulio Romano; painting Rinaldo Mantovano. Battle of the Gods and Giants, detail showing the collapse of the giant’s hall. 1532-1534. Artstor, library-artstor-org.kinkaid.idm.oclc.org/asset/SCALA_ARCHIVES_1039778916
WCW quote from: Williams’s introduction to The Wedge, in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (NY: New Directions, 1969), p. 256. Accessed via writing.upenn.edu, June 11, 2020.
West, Kanye and Kid Cudi. “Reborn.” Kids See Ghosts. Topic, provided to Youtube by Universal Music Group, June 8 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQC8COGQ4BM. Accessed June 11, 2020.