This piece, written for an event at Ateneo de Naga University last October 3, 2011, is shaped by Longenbach’s essay on the resistance to poetry and numerous ongoing conversations with members of High Chair. These notes were written after being emailed the invitation to say something about why poetry is important in this day and age. They are part of an essay on one’s poetics, which I am in the process of revising.
In Ateneo de Naga, Allan Popa, Oliver Ortega, and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and talk with the students of two humanities classes and members of the Ateneo Literary Association on the matter of laziness and disinterest in poetry, what to do when a poem is difficult, what makes a poem “effective,” why we write, writing in English versus in Filipino, and as one student put it, “Paano tutugunan ng tula ang bayan?” All hard, thought-provoking questions.
Implicit in the always present need to talk about the importance of poetry is the acute possibility that it isn’t. One need not say why money is important.
If we consider how avidly our society expresses value over certain objects, then any assertion about the importance of poetry in our lives sometimes seems to me no more than mere sentiment.
And yet one is disinclined to claim poetry’s uselessness categorically.
If we consider how expertly we place price tags on practically everything, turning even personal tragedies into a ratings war, what then of the thing that we hold up to the light to appraise, but turns its back to us and says: No?
What do we make of an object whose value has nothing to do with its economic worth or commercial appeal? Having no place for such an object in our largely materialistic society, do we treat it as we do other worthless things, weakening its existence by sheer neglect to the point of obsolescence?
But: by relegating the object to a level of obscurity it is stripped of the burden of mass appeal and safe from popularity’s tranquilizing endorsements.
Is it possible therefore that we are liberating the thing that is the poem to explore ideas more attentively and to experiment in joyful, creative isolation? Is it possible that its uselessness is the very aspect that nourishes it?
The poem tells us that it is possible to exist in active resistance to the blind rhetoric of value and currency that contemporary society wants to feed us, a world where everything can become a thrilling commodity.
A poem might be able to show its worth by its worthlessness.
Do we celebrate poetry then for this virtuous marginality?
When we valorize poetry, gilding its edges, I think we also do poetry a great disservice.
To write is to come to an awareness, says Carolyn Forché, which I believe wholeheartedly. I write because it is the way available to me of thinking about the world, of apprehending experience.
Thus is the self implicated in the poem. We must write with vigorous self-reflection and be accountable for every word we put on the page.
When we glorify what we write, harboring illusions of distinction or consequence, we sacrifice self-awareness for ego, and what we write is at once boring, narcissistic, and annoying. At its very least.
At its worst, we fail at our responsibility as writers to consider ourselves limited and fallible, which pushes us to be more rigorous in our analysis. We fail at our task to keep scrutinizing and interrogating all stable sets of beliefs—ours and society’s—no matter how difficult the task or how unpleasant in the service of potentially arriving at the Truth.
When we feel so assured of the power and respectability of what we write, what beliefs and attitudes do we preserve and what do we foreclose? Thinking our beliefs more vital and virtuous than those of others who do not share our views, how do we begin to regard differences?
To approach our task as writers with a totalizing, aggressive belief about its capacities, we border possibly on self-aggrandizement and see differences as threats.
We enter a room and light a candle. Someone we don’t know walks in to light another and how is it we think this additional fire diminishes the light in the entire room?
And so one is still disinclined to claim poetry’s uselessness.
And yet/and so one continues to write.