Poetry, history, connectivity

We are connected, perhaps too closely, too immediately. With Nigeria and Boko Haram. With Paris and Charlie Hebdo. Ferguson, MO. Eric Garner in New York. George Zimmerman. Iraq. Syria. It’s easy to continue this list–too easy.

What we tend to want are simple solutions, dichotomies, dualities, one choice or another–not complexities and subtleties. But the human brain, the human culture, the human genome, the human body and the systems in and through which we operate are damned complicated.

~

Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins gets a great deal of press, and sometimes he gets criticism for his popularity; but in a recent interview he states in apparently simple terms how complex the human condition is, and why we need compassion, and poetry:

The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

The history books will leave out many of the crimes, massacres, terrorist acts, and bloody little belligerent actions of people and their governments and cultures and belief systems. History cannot help but be compromised by point of view–it is always, as Churchill noted, “written by the victors,” even when they are trying to be even-handed and objective. But poetry is all about point of view. The “tell it slant” of Dickinson, ambiguity and mixed feelings, individual imaginations and individual interpretations. As Collins puts it:

I think writing and creating are expressions of an epistemological position — that is, how you look at the world, that slant you look at it from. And that’s all I feel I am in a palpable way responsible to: using that slant to get at some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.

It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language. You have to listen to all the other violinists who have ever played, and read all of the poetry you can consume. That’s my sense of responsibility. It’s an artistic responsibility, not so much a political one, not so much a financial one or a responsibility based on commodity. It can’t be commodified.

As a teacher myself, I love the anecdote in this interview about a past student who, years later, could recall a poem he’d memorized for Collins’ class. Collins says:

[T]eaching is a very mysterious process. You’re throwing information, in a sense, into the dark. I mean, you spend an hour talking to this group of increasingly younger people and you walk out of there and you think sometimes you’ve had a good class, and other times it’s not been that great. But no matter what it is to you, you’re not sure how it’s being taken or what effect you’ve had.

The story reminds me of one time when I was getting my teeth examined; my dentist (knowing I teach poetry) said to me, “You know, in college and dental school, I took Chemistry. I had five classes in Chemistry. And I never, hardly ever, in my current job, use that information. I almost never think about chemistry. But I took a class on Milton’s Paradise Lost. A poetry class, really. And  you know, to this day–sometimes I find myself thinking about that poem. And that class, and those lines. Really. It’s stayed with me much longer, and more significantly, than any of the chemistry courses I took.”

Billy Collins would surely smile and nod if I were to tell him this story. Those connections are the invaluable sort: beyond information and into the mystery of what makes us human beings. Teachers learn from this sort of experience. It stays with us.

~

We may not be able to resolve the wars, prejudices, pride and anger and sense of  injustice that cause people to murder one another for revenge, honor, religious feeling, economic or territorial needs, or fears so deep we may not even be able to name them. Even tolerance has its downside: a tendency to refrain or excuse when speaking up might be necessary, if dangerous. Not all of us enjoy the learning we can gain from adversity or from trying to understand our enemies, who may not respect a willingness to listen. Not all of us learn from great literature, or have the patience to live with art that discomfits or challenges us. It is easier to paint Satan with the broad brush of evil, when Milton’s character possesses nuance and depth. The same with Mohammed or Jesus, the Pope or Buddha, Putin, Obama, or any world leader or financial oligarch.

We are all people in the world, flesh and bone, loved by someone, suffering and gratified by daily life, under the same sun and moon. The sun and moon that have appeared in poems from time immemorial. The biosphere that connects us whether we like it or not.

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88 comments on “Poetry, history, connectivity

  1. swantsays says:

    Annie- next time you get down with this Collins character could you give him a message from me? Tell him, yo dude, poetry is most certainly NOT the only history of human emotions.

    Like

    • I don’t know Collins; this excerpt came from a recent interview. So I am not likely to get down with him, call him ‘yo dude,’ or give him a message from you. However, would you accept the assertion that literature and the arts offer the only history of human emotions? Have you a better choice for that? Such as?

      Liked by 5 people

      • nicktitmus says:

        Does Auschwitz offer an insight into human emotions? It certainly isn’t literature or the arts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, in and of itself; the many ways in which creative people have responded to it and interpreted those responses are where the insights lie.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Rain, Rain says:

        Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions? Well, sure. Except for, well, every other art form there is. And, um, history. And diaries. Oh, and court records. Gravestones. Burial sites. Religious artifacts. Um, architecture. Birth records… ooh! DNA.

        Okay, on second thought, that is a ridiculous statement.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Except for, well, every other art form there is.”

        I believe Mr. Collins was speaking metaphorically, you know–as poets tend to do. He is a great enthusiast of music and history and of the plastic and visual arts and, too, of architecture (just read his books for evidence thereof!)…so in this particular interview, perhaps he narrowed his words a bit much; you are not the only reader who commented on this statement. History does not generally tell us about emotions, though diaries sometimes may; court records record what people say but we have to interpret emotions from them. Same with gravesites or birth records; they don’t give us a history of human emotions–they just tell us someone was born or died.

        As for DNA and the seat of consciousness, or the arousal of and need for interpreting human emotional history, see D’Amasio and others working on these fascinating domains (https://annemichael.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-good-start-possibly/).

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Sigrun says:

    Wonderful, thank you! I really like that Collins say: “some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.” – not that beauty necessary is truth, but beauty sure can make life worth living.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. bongletron says:

    Beautifully written!. And containing much truth. Double whammy.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Faith says:

    “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”
    “No man is an island”
    And all that, right?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I love this : It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, ”

    Excellent post. Great perspective. Thanks for making me think.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I often wonder what part of that true-ness is most difficult and if that varies from person to person. I find it easier usually to be true to the material, myself; I am not always certain what my vision is.

      Liked by 3 people

      • T. says:

        I think being true is difficult for a number of reasons. For me its difficult because it requires honesty and sometimes that can be painful for me or others (especially in poetry). For example writing people as they truly are or sugar coating it in order to not cause offence. Another reason it might be hard to be true to the material: is the reason you are creating it purely expression or purely financial? I think money (who you are creating for and what they expect) and deadlines can effect the trueness of any art form. — I really enjoyed this article and agree that poetry is so imporant and that there is no simple solution to todays problems, like you say humans are complicated!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Financial? I’ve never gotten any financial gain from poetry, so that purpose never enters in…though it might perhaps tempt a successful novelist or someone along those lines. And therefore I can wait on revising a poem or manuscript: no urgent deadlines.

        What is true is often painful. How we choose to present pain, what perspective we take, what aesthetics or values or cultural assumptions we bring to it (or question about it)–those things enter into artistic expression. Well, I think so.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. penknife123 says:

    Reblogged this on penknife123 and commented:
    Nice!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Limah says:

    This is a very eloquent piece. I often think about how poetry, and literature in general, expresses a universal human emotion thats felt, battled with, and engaged for centuries. It demonstrates that perhaps humanity is immutable no matter how much time elapses. And that no matter the race, gender, or religion of an individual human emotions are still felt, which render these distinctions & labels innately false & unreasonable, because fundamentally we’re all experiencing the same thing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • As you say, “no matter the race, gender, or religion of an individual human emotions are still felt, which render these distinctions & labels innately false & unreasonable.” And through time, too. The arts do engage us through centuries–isn’t that amazing?

      Liked by 4 people

  8. Thank you for writing this. Very good read. I really believe “…poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on i like my coffee black-ish and commented:
    Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Nichole says:

    The last two lines really got to me. This was great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. T. says:

    Reblogged this on Transcending Normality and commented:
    Great post for starting the day off!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mike says:

    Reblogged this on Thai Fancy Pants and commented:
    “We are all people in the world, flesh and bone, loved by someone, suffering and gratified by daily life…”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Amazing writing , love it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Bowrag says:

    Poetry is great! I wish I was a better poet!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hopeje says:

    Thank you for your post. It is so well written, form and content! A real pleasure, to treasure. Have a good week end, and please pursuit your teaching mission. You impact and form many persons, and help building up the new world and generation. They will all grow with a piece of you. And tolerance, patience, connection with one self and what surounds us, is what we need.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Our leaders here in Nigeria only care on how to win election,when thousands of lives going.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Our closeness is a thing of beauty and we would do well to allow some breathing space between each of us!

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Absolutely one of the best blogs I’ve ever read! The closing statement was BEAUTIFULLY written! Looking forward to more! We are all people, we are all humans, we are all equal.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Tish Farrell says:

    A very thoughtful proposition. Poetry has all the fine tuning that so much of our non-poetic life lacks. I am so weary of the dogmatic, polarized analyses of our shared reality – present and past. Either/Or thinking could indeed be the death of us in the future; it has already been proved in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. seholgate says:

    Really interesting blog… Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. alexvrince says:

    Reblogged this on an everyday life blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. The Editor says:

    Great article 🙂 it really is quite amazing how literature can touch the hearts of people spanning different parts of the world, simply because they perceive the same piece of work differently. I enjoyed this simple but gold piece tremendously.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Reblogged this on TheLinkedSide and commented:
    Abbattere le barriere mediatiche? si può?

    Liked by 1 person

  24. A Pen's Affair says:

    Nicely crafted!! I liked this line “It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language.”

    Liked by 1 person

  25. birdsncurds says:

    Wonderful! Too often we treat poetry as a red-headed stepchild, but it is our soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. denisenassif says:

    Thank you for this. I am not a poet….but i love what you wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Sometimes WordPress chooses a true gem to Freshly Press. This is a precious gem! Inspirational, you move to take my poetry more seriously and to a new level. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  28. sonsothunder says:

    Agreed- What the World needs is more poetry. But, whose gonna make them read it? Sadly

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Mark Murphy says:

    lovely, lovely stuff …

    Liked by 1 person

  30. dakotahraee says:

    Reblogged this on dakotahraee and commented:
    Truly brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Great blog – here is a link to mine that tries to promote connection too.https://amonikabyanyuvva.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/the-c-word/

    Liked by 1 person

  32. johnberk says:

    Poems are a form of left brain meditation, using words to suppress the everyday reality of our memory and delve into a more spiritual and introspective self. I would argue that the opposite of this condition is the beer drinking. It makes us enjoy the company and ourselves with greater pleasure, and it evolved independently throughout the history (same as poetry). I was happy about your post for the reason that you state that poems can show us how feelings matter in almost every situation of the world, history, war, peace, famine or cold. I have not experienced anything similar with other type of literature, because it is often too demanding to visualize the events that the emotional part stays hidden behind a curtain.

    Like

  33. IMK9 says:

    Thank you for the inspiration this post brought

    Like

  34. jackpwns says:

    Reblogged this on Jackpwns' Posts and commented:
    Beautiful, insightful, truthful. Thank you for your words, it was worth the read.

    Like

  35. ensondeluz says:

    Wonderful! but I don’t think that, in case of being one of the girls kidnapped by those “complex human beings” of Boko Haram and married by force, any of our poets wishful concepts will help her to feel better or to find any clue to get relief in her “new life”.

    Like

    • I don’t make those kinds of claims for poetry–that it offers any relief for human suffering. It is more likely to inform readers about kinds of suffering, or other experiences, that they may not know. Or, to let other human beings know they are not alone in their experience, whatever that may be worth (not a lot, I guess). Poets are seldom “wishful”…our greatest and most memorable poets compel us to look at truths, not at wishes.

      Like

  36. oxfordienne says:

    A great article on the importance of the subjective point of view. It reminds me of the Gonzo journalism and of the importance for our society of the subjective point of view on the events. This is, for me, the true liberty of expression, don’t fear to see the world through the eyes of Art.

    Like

  37. mads says:

    Great post! Really emphasizes the importance of the human emotion no matter your beliefs. Eye-opening.

    Like

  38. tet15 says:

    Reblogged this on The Broken Muse and commented:
    This made me rather happy.

    Like

  39. Sean says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Beautifully done!

    Like

  40. […] Ann E. Michael shares an evocative and provocative (see the comments) piece here about the need for poetry in understanding and remembering human emotion through history. A simply stunning write with references and predictions and a beautiful reflection on the value of things outside our normal routines. A must read […]

    Like

  41. sripriya27 says:

    This is so beautifully written. I read this when I just woke up and I must say this, what a refreshing start. The idea of poetry as an account of history has always appealed to me, and is part of the many reasons why I write and your article has given me some brilliant perspective on this idea!

    Like

  42. rum4wine says:

    For me, poetry gives me the ability and strength to write everything I wish to in the most beautiful and substantial way. Very well written Ann.
    Also, check out our blog https://rum4wine.wordpress.com

    Like

  43. indigo360 says:

    Reblogged this on Panoply of Life and commented:
    What a wonderful heartfelt essay. Poetry will never lose these powers.

    Liked by 1 person

  44. suchled says:

    I bumped into an old student of mine the other day. She is doing a PhD in microbiology. I asked what she had learned at school that stuck with her most. She just smiled and said ” I am in blood step’t in so far that should I wade no more…..” I had to stop her she would have missed her stop.

    Like

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