Poetry Brings Out Our Higher Instincts



One of my best Christmas gifts this year was Garrison Keillor's new poetry anthology "Good Poems for Hard Times" (Viking, $24.95)

Most of you know Keillor for his "A Prairie Home Companion" on National Public Radio. But in the foreword to his poetry book he explains how he took a turn at being a poet first:

"What killed my career was encouragement. I wrote a poem called ‘Crucifixion‚' and a friend of mine (himself a poet) wrote me a letter praising it that only made me see how cheap and fraudulent it was and I didn't want to be that kind of fake. I made a simple moral decision: it is probably better to imitate humor than portentous despair. I quit cold turkey. Aside from the occasional limerick for somebody's birthday, I've been clean ever since."

But Keillor explains why poetry matters perhaps more than any kind of writing (not to mention some of the other art forms):

"Poetry is a necessity as simple as the need to be touched and similarly a need that is hard to enunciate. The intense vision and high spirits and moral grandeur are simply needed lest we drift through our days consumed by clothing options and hair styling and whether to have the soup or the salad."

The "hard times" part of the title has nothing to do with a depression or natural disaster, but a country that has lost its way -- "the levers of power firmly in the hands of a cadre of Christian pirates and bullies whose cynicism is stunning, especially their perversion of the gospel of the Lord to blast the poor and the meek and subvert the tax system in favor of the rich."

"Poetry," Keillor says, "is free speech. It is ever on the side of the irrepressible spirit and in opposition to the censor, to Management, to the protocols of the company psychologist, to the roomful of men in blue suits who casually cheat schoolchildren."

One of the poems that first caught my eye was "At the Arraignment" by Debra Spencer, which chides us for not helping those less fortunate than ourselves. In it, Jesus accompanies various collections of prisoners to their arraignments and then goes back to their cells with them.

At the end Jesus turns to those watching the proceedings in the courtroom:

"If you won't help them, he says,

then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,

and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.

Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison

and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?

I died for you -- a desperate extravagance, even for me.

If you can't be merciful, at least be bold."

"Invitation" by Carl Dennis is about an invitation to a ninth grade production of "Macbeth" -- and a lot more:

"Doubtless you will recall that ‘Macbeth' is about ambition.

This is the play for you if you've been tempted

To claw your way to the top. If you haven't been,

It should make you feel grateful.

Just allow time to get lost before arriving.

So many roads are ready to take you forward

Into the empty world to come, misty with promises.

So few will lead you back to what you've missed."

In "The Longly-Weds Know," Leah Furnas captures the beauty of a long, loving marriage by focusing on "all the unremarkable years Hallmark doesn't even make a card for:"

"It's about the 11th, 12th, and 13th years when

they discovered they could survive crisis.

And the 22nd anniversary when they looked

at each other across the empty nest, and found it good."

And then there is this simple case made for marriage in Bill Holms "Wedding Poem for Schele and Phil:"

"But the dark secret of the ones long married,

A pleasure never mentioned to the young,

Is the sweet heat made from two bodies in a bed

Curled together on a winter night.

The smell of the other always in the quilt,

The hand set quietly on the other's flank

That carries news from another world

Light-years away from the one inside

That you always thought you inhabited alone.

The heat in that hand could melt a stone."

You won't find a better example of poetry's ability to touch you in simple, but profound ways. In a world where it is increasingly easy to allow life to put you in a mundane stupor, poetry, more than any thing I know, brings you back to what matters.

The poems in Keillor's collection can be found elsewhere, but the book makes an excellent gift for somebody whose courageous side can sometimes get buried under life. Even yourself.

As Lee Robinson puts it in "The Rules of Evidence:"

"What you want to say most

is inadmissible.

Say it anyway.

Say it again.

What they tell you is irrelevant

can't be denied and will

eventually be heard."

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