Can poetry change the world? Just ask Andrei Voznesensky, a Russian rock-star poet who sold out stadiums for his poetry readings in the 1960s. Yes. Stadiums. Voznesensky said, “If you want to change the world’s spirit, I will suggest that only poetry can do this.”
Poetry Is Play
Poetry, for the most part, is playful, intuitive. If not ‘fun’ exactly, it’s fun-adjacent. It’s hard to imagine a single poem changing the world, but I’ve often thought the world changes every day, all the time, in big and small ways. Haven’t we all read a poem or a line that struck a chord deep within us? One that we remembered long after we needed to remember it for a test?
Who among us doesn’t remember this verse of William Blake’s “The Tyger” from our school days?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
I still remember these words by Samuel Taylor Coleridge on a green chalkboard in my grade nine English class although who was teaching it and who was sitting beside me has faded from memory:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Something about those strange first few words captured my imagination and my attention – not an easy feat then or now.
Probably less well known but these lines from Rumi have stayed with me for years:
You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender.
Poetry Is Personal
Poetry is so personal, isn’t it? What hits and lands deeply in me might go straight through you like a light breeze.
On a personal note, I’ve been braced for hard times, making sure we’re all surviving the isolation of COVID-19, checking to-do lists (Everyone has their masks?), and checking in on people (How are my parents doing?). If I stay in charge and in control, nothing bad can happen because I have managed all the variables.
Except, of course, you can’t, I can’t, and life doesn’t work that way–something we are all learning and re-learning in these weird times. This verse reminded me I have been putting off my own mental and emotional health for some mystical ‘later date,’ when everything calms down and I have time to process.
But that time may not come for weeks or months or years or never. Rumi, an Afghanistanian poet who wrote in the twelve century, brought tears to my eyes and reminded me that to bend, to surrender, is how we all grow stronger.
I could go on.
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has achieved near pop-culture status and accrued thousands of hours of arguments about what it actually means.
Poetry Is Meaningful
Clearly, poetry is meaningful. It crosses continents, gender, race, culture, and time. They’re like soul-to-soul Instagrams.
If you’re still with me, here’s where I’d like to talk about Enheduanna, the coolest chick-lit poet you’ve never heard of. The earliest known poetry is from a woman named Enheduanna. She was a bold, lyrical kick-butt daughter of a King, who was born more than 4,200 years ago. She was the high priestess in a city in what is southern Iraq. I could go down a rabbit hole of fascination about her but I will save that for another article. You can read more about her here.
I could also go on about how I own over 15 poetry books, have taken numerous poetry classes in University INCLUDING Women Poets of Antiquity and I have never heard of her before doing research for this article. Patriarchy can just kiss my lady bits.
Speaking of patriarchy Dylan Thomas once wrote that poetry contributes to reality. That a good poem “…helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge about himself and the world around him.” My favorite poem of Dylan Thomas is about his father, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight.” It became a mantra to me and my friends when a friend of ours received a devastating medical diagnosis at the age of 15. We used to recite the first and last line of this stanza together every time we left the hospital room:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Poetry Is a Tool
Poetry is this beautiful, terrible tool where we carve out our inner experience and jumble it around in a pleasing way in the hopes someone, somewhere will connect with it. Maybe even be bolstered by it. If not healed, then have the understanding they’re not alone in how they’re feeling.
Sometimes it feels hopeless. Sometimes it’s our last hope that allows us to scribble out the dark complexity between our mind and our heart. Or praise the way the light falls on our lover’s cheekbone.
Sometimes it’s a tool for social justice. A way to bridge the gap between disparate life experiences. It can create empathy and understanding. It can hit us where we didn’t know we were hurting. It can help us make sense of loss, of death, or boredom.
In “Speechless,” Audre Lorde talks about how death “folds the corners of my mouth.” When we read that, we assume she means a frown. But what a lovely way to say it! Sharp imagery, concise and expertly placed words carry us over the threshold of “other” until we can feel what the poet might be feeling no matter how different we are.
Nikita Gill said it best in “A Universal Truth,” when she talks about us having “storms and stories” inside our “starmade bodies.”
And maybe that is why we write poems. To learn how to hold space for our own flawed beings, and how to hold compassion for others. That feels world-changing to me.
Angela McAffee-Yeh lives and works in Texas – after her liberal arts degree she wandered into Corporate America but managed to escape. Now she has a husband, two kids, two dogs and two feral cats that swing by for treats. She teaches gardening and yoga to pre-kindergarten children by day, and spends her nights fantasizing about being the next JK Rowling. Sometimes she even manages a sentence or two. She is thrilled to be a part of the team at DIYMFA and to be contributing as a community helper. There isn’t anything more important than community – especially for writers. You can follow her blog at thepluckycanadian.com.