Practical Poetry

You might think, if you are not a poet, that poetry isn’t practical. You might recall Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” and think, well, maybe poetry is interior decoration… You would be wrong. Or, if right, not in the way you think.

Poetry won’t keep the rain off your head and unless you have a really thick hardback book of it in your breast pocket, it probably won’t save your life. (Teddy Roosevelt once survived an assassination attempt because he had a thick speech in his pocket, but bullets were slower and smaller back then.) Poetry does not protect us the way architecture does. But what is the practical purpose of interior decoration?

Many of us, when thinking of interior decoration in the abstract, might think of the crowded Victorian parlor with its innumerable mementos on tables and mantles, and walls so filled with pictures that the wallpaper is invisible: lots of things that have little value and serve mainly to distract the viewer and make the room feel full. Abundance presumably symbolizes wealth here, with quantity being more important than quality.vic parlor

It is no surprise then that it wasn’t the Victorians who invented the haiku! A lot of us were taught that the haiku is a 17-syllable poem of 3 lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. Actually that defines a senryu, which can be about any topic. Strictly speaking, a haiku needs to be about nature, the seasons, etc. But here is the problem that nobody explains. A 17-syllable poem in Japanese might have as few as 5 to 8 words. The word sensei, teacher, sounds like only 2 syllables in English, but in Japanese, it is 4 syllables: se-n-se-i. So those brilliant haiku poets, Basho and Issa? They are even more brilliant than you thought!


Similarly Japanese interior decoration is traditionally minimalist. A home might have a room where you would greet guests, and in that room is an alcove called the tokonoma where the family will display a scroll or flower arrangement or holiday decoration. Not ten. One. Keeping it simple and classy. Often the decoration will change with the seasons, making a small artistic statement about how we move through the year, and how the seasons move through us. I think poetry can be like that, a beautiful moment to acknowledge a truth about the world and ourselves. And to me, that kind of poetry is very useful, very practical.

In the introduction to her 1982 collection of poetry, Marge Piercy explained how she wanted her poems to be of use. “What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom w all and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we must fear, in the small release of cadenced utterance. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives” (xii).

This is what I look for in poetry that I read, and this is what I work for in poetry that I write.

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.

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