As well as the stuff that doesn’t rhyme. April is National Poetry Month, though I wonder who decided. Who makes something a “national month”? Surely not Congress. I cannot imagine that wretched pit of semiliterates commemorating poetry. But here it is anyway. I want to commemorate poetry myself by noting that in addition to the pleasure and meaning poetry can bring to our individual lives, it also makes human beings more civilized.
After some thought, I decided that the evocation of civilization even includes the old epic poetry. I’m most familiar with the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, and at first I did not think of them as promoting civilization, considering how violent they are. Honestly, it’s weird and disturbing how brutally savage those poems are, and yet, they helped to create a sense among the ancient Greeks of having a common culture, of being part of the Greek world. When you think about the idea of being a member of a large group as opposed to only belonging to small hostile tribes, that way of thinking is definitely a step toward civilization.
Poetry also works with language, which is quintessentially human, perhaps the single most human quality we possess. Language is accessible to everyone, and the very material of poetry is this essential human skill combined with human experience. Poetry thus arises, in a sense, out of everyone. Because poetry can also be very short, it feels more available to people who might not try something that requires more investment of time and effort. For these reasons, poetry is probably the one art form that the majority of humans have tried. Most people do not compose music, or paint paintings, or write novels, but most people have probably written (or started to write) at least one poem in their life, even if only one.
Another way poetry makes us civilized is that by its very nature it takes our human skill of language and shapes it in ways that require thought, knowledge, and feeling. These are qualities of the mind, ways of thinking that involve contemplation and examination. The more that human beings learn to exercise these qualities–to consider things carefully, to think about things–the closer we come to being civilized.
I would also argue that poetry makes us more civilized by giving us a very accessible form of expression that feels more intense and rich than normal speech. It is our nature that we need to express our thoughts and feelings, and if we don’t, we become ill and broken. As to why we need to do this, I have no idea, but clearly we need to express ourselves, to “get things out” and poetry is right there available. It does not have to be good poetry in some artistic sense to have a civilizing effect. What matters is that the anguished teenager can write it and find emotional relief.
Poetry furthermore allows us, when we read it, to go inside other people’s experiences, including some that are radically different from what we know. With poetry we can go into the mind of other people in other places with other cultural values, and when we feel the emotion in the poetry, then we can begin to understand our common humanity with another person. If we connect with people from other cultures and places, that is also a step on the road to civilization.
I’ll end with three lines from the beginning of a poem by a poet who was writing early in the 20th century, but who still feels on the edge of experimentation, e. e. cummings (which is how he spelled his name):
my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through have of give
singing each morning out of night