A few days ago I was at a poetry reading with an open mic, and as one guy read his poems I was thinking, “Man, this is dull, uninteresting poetry.” There were various things the poetry did not have (imagination, playfulness, linguistic awareness), but there was also something it did have. As he read, I noticed how seriously he took what he was doing, how intensely engaged he appeared to be with what he was saying.
The poems were not about the words or the images and perhaps not even about the feeling they created. These poems were about the ideas—the poet had something to say, and it mattered to him a good deal that he say it. For whatever reason, he had chosen poetry as his way to present those ideas.
If this man was like most people, he would sometimes ask himself “am I any good at this?” with a self doubt that’s almost inevitable. I say it was brave of him to get up in front of a room full of strangers and read things that clearly came from his heart. Think about doing that. Not only would you show how you feel, but you’d do it in a way that will cause people to judge you for how you wrote.
What would make him, or anyone, do that?
When I drive to work every day, there is a spot where I sit sometimes for a few minutes waiting on a light, with two lanes of traffic passing to my left, and at that time of morning, the sunlight shows the faces of the drivers as they go by. I like to watch the drivers, and I find the variety interesting: old men, young women, construction workers in trucks, women with kids in SUVs, white, black, Asian—for a couple of seconds I focus on a person, and then they’re gone.
I always wonder where they’re going, what thoughts are filling their minds. For two seconds I think “here is a person whose world is as complicated and full of detail as my own, with worries, with plans, with something they’re going to do today” and then they’re gone. From this little game, I sometimes try to conceive of the fact that there is another person and another and another and another, until you get billions of people, each with a world that is complicated and full of detail. On the occasions when I can somewhat imagine this, it’s so overwhelming it sort of takes my breath away.
Everyone has something that needs saying. Of the billions of people on the earth, each of them needs to say something. Not everyone says what they need to, because some are repressed, some are oppressed, and some are simply afraid. Whether a person says what they need to say or not, however, everyone needs it.
People who want to control others take away their speech. Look at all dictators (wave at the camera, Russia and China.) When people do express their thoughts, it doesn’t have to be done in poetry, of course, but however it is done, by speaking—whether real speaking or symbolic speech—we gain both power and freedom.
So even bad poetry is a declaration of self respect and freedom. Sometimes it isn’t that we speak well, but that we are strong enough and brave enough to speak at all.