My youngest son is a poet and so upon his graduation from college (yay!) and return home for the summer, we have been having discussions about what poetry is.
You won’t be surprised to hear that we haven’t figured it out. But we know that we like some and can’t stand others. For me, a poem is successful if it conveys emotion and describes people, things and scenes. It’s all about how words are put together. Sometimes I read a poem and I don’t get it. Last week I forced myself to reread the same New Yorker poem three times to figure out if I could make any sense of it. By the third time, I could picture the room it described but I still didn’t know why the author wrote it. It didn’t touch me, as I like to say.
I’m not a scholar and I admit that others might get more out of it than I did. I also don’t believe that art is good only if it is commercial or aimed at the broadest audience. I hope there is room for niches and for genius that is ahead of its time.
For the most part, though, poetry and prose that don’t convey ideas simply, or that struggle to create an image in your mind’s eye, is doomed to be quickly forgotten. Hey, I speak from experience, as most of what I’ve written in my own long and storied career falls into that category. Writing is one of the many Sisyphean jobs. You might push the boulder to the summit every once in awhile, but it rolls back down and you start writing again at the bottom of the hill.
It was clear that words and their meaning are important in the aftermath of events such as we saw in the past week. Nine people were murdered in a South Carolina church and within a day a debate arose about whether the butchery should be called terrorism. Is it enough to describe it as a hate crime? Can we dismiss it more easily if we consider the murderer a nut who acted alone? Does the label of terrorism commit government and society to react differently?
Brian Williams also faced harsh analysis after his interview with Matt Lauer during which Williams said he was sorry for incorrectly describing his involvement during a wartime incident. Did he really apologize during the interview? Did he apologize enough? Should we forgive him only if he uses the word “liar” to describe himself?
The importance of language is not a subject only for the elite or when we force ourselves to read poetry. Words and the way we use them can change what we believe and how we live our lives.