Editor’s Note: As we spend our final week showcasing Brendan Constantine’s work as Poet in Residence here at Easy Street, we asked him “Why Does Poetry Matter?”
It’s a loaded question—a trick question of sorts, especially when asked of a poet. It’s both an invitation to wax rhapsodic and an insult, depending on how one looks at the query. We ask because we are profoundly interested in the ways poetry changes us even as the art form itself continually evolves.
Brendan started by telling me about an exchange he had while teaching at a juvenile detention facility in California. Here are just some of the highlights of our two-hour conversation—a sliver of the eternal dialogue between poets, language, and the world we live in. —Camille Griep
…I’d been a few times [to a California juvenile detention facility] to go lead special classes—just talk about what I do, talk about poetry. I remember there were armed guards in the room, standing there with their arms crossed, facing the students for the duration of class. In one such environment, I was getting into the tools of poetry. And a young man raised his hand and said, “Excuse me, but what the fuck is the point of all this?”
It’s the moment that you pray for and dread, at the same time. My instinct as a teacher is always that I will be discovered as a fake. At the same time, there’s a part of me that relishes the question because it’s actually one of the only things I own.
It’s one of the things that I’m sure of: The art of language—those things that we identify as being particular tools of what we define poetry to be in the west (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, rhythm, beat, braided narrative) and all of these different tools and means are in fact useful and practical skills for someone who will never set their minds to writing a piece of creative literature. These are all clearly important skills as far as relating the human experience from one person to another.
Paul Valerie is credited with saying a number of different things. One of them is, “Poetry is a language inside a language.” Whereas day-to-day use of our language is utilitarian, there is another use of the language which is an emotional vocabulary. And if someone is given an agency with an emotional vocabulary, learning to relate to things on an emotional level, an empathic level, that have a little bit of metaphor in them, then they have the means to compassion, an emotional understanding of the world around them, effectively doubling their available vocabulary. They are not only able to tell you what’s in the room, but what it feels like to be in the room with those things.
I’ve had several encounters with other writers over the last few years that were wonderful reminders about poetry not as we necessarily define it in the west. If you look at a dictionary or encyclopedia, you can get the impression, if you’re not careful, that poetry starts in Greek and Latin and then just sits on its ass waiting for the Chaucerian compromise. Between French and German, then poetry happens. And of course, that’s ludicrous. Poetry seems to evolve in every culture with a language. They may not all refer to it universally as a separate form of expression, but those things we have used as indicators of poetry in the west, all appear in other cultures … for what appears to be the same reason—to get at a form of communication that is not information-based, but empathy based and emotional.
If someone is given an agency with an emotional vocabulary, learning to relate to things on an emotional level, an empathic level, that have a little bit of metaphor in them, then they have the means to compassion, an emotional understanding of the world around them.
The example that has been spinning me for the last two years comes from a conversation I had with my friend Natalie Diaz. She is a Mojave Indian and has been working to preserve the language. She told me there isn’t a poetic tradition that is distinguished from normal speech. Mojave in its simplest usage is charged with image and metaphor. For example, the expression for evening describes the time of day when the coyote’s tail knocks the sun from its place. To the cynic that may sound quaint, but to me it seems a very advanced way of speaking.
But the model that I see over and over again, particularly with the romance languages, is that there is a day-to-day usage of language and then this other way to use it. And these models tend to evolve along the same lines, as near as I can tell. If we’re getting into does poetry matter and how does it matter, these are my conclusions based on my observations.
I only know what I’ve observed and what I’ve observed is that poetry evolves along with the entire village, not just one member of the tribe. It’s a number of members who for whatever reason discover they need a special way to talk about special things. These things tend to be personal, tend to come down to some emotional urgency be it motivated by an existential priority (we’re all going to die) or any of the things a culture might invent or manifest to compete with those realizations, like a religion.
Spoken language tends to predate a written language, starting with using special words in a special way—quite often musically. Because if you give something a rhythm, it makes it easier to remember. With a cadence that is easy to remember, you can ascribe a lot to [the language] including your tribal history, the names of everybody. Once a written language emerges, now we’re really off to the races because your poetry can have all sorts of other flourishes that are not so easy to remember, the complexity of which also responds to what you are writing on—a cave, on a hide, or in a book. Forms will follow all of those available spaces.
It’s funny, there are all these things we call poetry—this late into the evolution of so many of the world’s cultures—and names we’ve all agreed means the same thing as poetry. Where the Greek word for poetry translates into something made (the poet is the maker), in Arabic the term translates to perceive, or an act of perception. Are they the same thing? In other cultures poetry is the temple word, the sacred speech, or even the death language. Or the language from the other side, the language inside the thing. There are cultures where poetry is where the air speaks, where the earth speaks, where the animal speaks, or the thing inside the animal speaks. And we all seem to be talking about the same thing, despite important differences.
In any case, the more you look at it, it is clear poetry did not simply start in one culture and spread. It is safe to say that the majority of world cultures evolved something like poetry on their own. That right there I find hugely persuasive when we’re trying to figure out whether or not this is something that matters. I don’t know if it matters, but everybody does it. It would appear to be an integral part of at least cultural adolescence, if not cultural maturation.
In most cultures, poetry begins fairly small in subject matter, fairly contained. It’s about this handful of things, approached in this handful of ways, and each time the poet tests those boundaries and makes it a little bigger, and a little bigger.
Once a written language emerges, now we’re really off to the races because your poetry can have all sorts of other flourishes that are not so easy to remember, the complexity of which also responds to what you are writing on—a cave, on a hide, or in a book.
And so now we are at a time that is really terrifying for the literary critic because of catatonia for literary criticism where poetry is concerned because there are so few things now where we can say, Yes, absolutely. This identifies this as a poem and that as not. Like it or not, the big piece of credibility now is the poet’s own assertion that it is poetry. It is not a line break anymore. It’s not rhythm or meter. It’s not subject matter.
It’s a huge change in a society who has historically wanted our artists to be credentialed. I guess what we’re afraid of is finding out we’ve accidentally been moved by something.
We’ve lived longer than we expected and there is so much art out there. There’s so much poetry. There’s so much of it that, at this point, every great literary critic is going to die ignorant of most of the literature that has ever been en vogue. Harold Bloom is going to die knowing very little about what was ever written—and he knows a great deal about what was ever written. There’s just too much.
How old does something have to be before it’s irrelevant? We would like to think that we’re engaged in a conversation about art—that it’s only progressive, that it’s only linear, that the art with which we should concern ourselves is art that takes into consideration all of the art that came before it and is deliberately trying to further a discussion that began on a cave wall and moved forward in time with technology and a calendar of human discovery.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. Or anything that proves that model, except a bunch of people who would like it it to be so. If we look at the consequences of any revolution in art on a calendar, we find that its detonations are as much reticular as they are anticipatory. That each new movement into the future changes our understanding of the past—they are backwards-looking as much as they are forward-looking.
I don’t want to believe that art is like science is all heading in one single direction of discovery. It might be easier to navigate and talk about, but I don’t know that it’s a desirable situation at all.
The interesting thing about poetry is that, unlike most other art forms, it’s materials are used by everyone, everyday. Most people get up in the morning and start talking, if only to themselves. However, they don’t typically start sculpting or painting or dancing their way through breakfast and to work. And though the poet loves language and is bound to it, he or she quite often attempts to express something beyond the medium, beyond words.
Because You Watched The Space Children
by Brendan Contantine
Because you watched The Space Children
we recommend Aliens and The Man
From Planet X. You might also consider
the Polish woman from next door, her
constant robe and flower pots. Other
picks include the boy who watched you
buy food at a gas station, the possum
on the roof, the word “helicopter.” These
suggestions are based on your history.
You can always update your profile
by brooding at random: on your shoes,
a faraway chair, a blunder. Think of
things you could’ve said the last time
you fought with a lover. It was hard to
concentrate when your rockets failed;
the fire and sirens, the space children
locked arm in arm, ready to turn us all
to diamonds with a look.
“Because You Watched The Space Children” originally appeared in Red Headed Step Child.