It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
So wrote American poet William Carlos Williams in his poem Asphodel. Williams was also a family physician who lived and worked in the same small town for his entire career (during which he is said to have delivered over 2000 babies!). And in both his practice of poetry and of medicine, his interest and empathy lay with the lives of the neighbors he lived among and served.
Since April is National Poetry month, I thought I’d take a brief look at the “what is found there” that Williams refers to: that quality to be found in poetry that can help each of us to be most fully alive.
In America (unlike in most other cultures) many of us think that “poetry” is a kind of writing characterized by airy ideas, gushy emotions, rhyme, and the kind of hi-falutin’ language that no-one actually speaks anymore; a kind of writing that has no meaning or usefulness to the everyday lives of regular folks. I used to think that way, too: in my case, it seemed to me that the main purpose of poetry was to defeat my ability to pass high school English!
But anyone who’s ever cried to a country western song, or felt their rage over some personal injustice expressed by the words of a Psalm, or been amused by the wordplay in a clever ad jingle, has been moved by the power of poetry; poetry suffuses our daily lives like air. As one writer put it, “Poems […] wade into the thick of what concerns us most,” and a good poem has the ability to speak straight from the “thick” of those concerns to their heart—to our deepest fears, griefs, and joys. By doing so, poems help us know ourselves as less alone and more alive .
We who live in South Wasco County are perhaps especially attuned to the power and beauty of the land, weather, and water, and we are profoundly aware of how intimately our entire lives are bound to these elements. For me, falling in love with poetry—with reading poems, and eventually writing them– began when I was introduced to poets whose poems spoke to my heart in plain language, and out of the kind of authority that comes from a deep connection to the land. Poets such as Mary Oliver, whose poem “Wild Geese” never fails to move me by what it understands and invites, in its direct, plainspoken way:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
When I hear the sense of deep empathy conveyed by that poem, and feel its consoling effect, I think that it must be the lack of that in our lives—empathy, and its consolation– and the kind of deathly loneliness and fear that results from that lack, that is what Dr. Williams meant when he wrote of what poetry offers that “the news” cannot.