March 4, 2007

Pondering poetry, profundity, and the power of words

Ever since Councillor John Tobin proposed the idea of a Boston poet laureate, I've been wondering why the idea of a poet laureate exists at all.  Don't get me wrongI'm glad it does.  It's just that I'm curious about the concept: why a poet laureate rather, say, than a teacher laureate, a lawyer laureate, a hedge fund manager laureate?  Or, staying with the arts, why not a novelist or sculptor laureate?  Why is poetry the way we articulate our civic life?  As I guess I'm often asking, what is it about poetry?

I asked Dagan Coppock about that.  Coppock is a resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  He is also co-editor of Body Language:  Poems of the Medical Training Experience, a collection written by people who clearly were busy doing other things.  And yet they turned to poetry. 

"We live in a country, in a society that is pretty driven by technological progress," he says.  "In the end, poets are society's last vestige of the shamans, the keepers of words for everyone. "

I think he's on to something.  There is a spiritual quality to poetry, an ability to aim itself straight to the deepest part of our beings.  That's why we turned to it in droves to exorcise the terrible power of 9/11 or, as this column talked about recently, the devastation of the Gulf Coast that followed Hurricane Katrina. 

Tobin's proposal, written in slightly tongue-in-cheek verse by Joe Bergin, a member of the Carpenter Poets of Jamaica Plain, noted that "only poetry can give voice to the profound." It also quoted John F. Kennedy's words:  "When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.  When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence."

Tobin envisions a poet laureate whose words would commemorate public occasions.  But, he told me, a city poet could also provide another way to talk about the city and its life.  I like that.  Someone who could mark a mayoral inauguration or public building dedication, sure.  But maybe also someone who could ponder blinking lights under the Longfellow Bridge or voice the public anguish over young people shot to death on our streets. 

Pointing to the rhymes and rhythms of rap and hip hop they already enjoy, Tobin says he'd like to see schoolchildren recognize that poetry holds something for them.  He wants them to aspire to write, to take pleasure in reading.  He wants to offer kids a different kind of role model, not just the sports heroes.  And he hopes that poetry will give them a new way to hear their community stories.

As Coppock notes, it is the stories we live by that tell us who we are.  "All societies have had holy people at their spiritual center who were the keepers of their stories just the way that, in our own families there are always the patriarchs and matriarchs who know the family stories."

Telling those stories in words, the currency of our everyday interactions, delivers them in a way that, perhaps visual art or music could not. 

"There is something about words and storynarrativethat is important to collective society, that gives written word power over society that other arts may not have," says Coppock, adding,  "Poetry has moved in recent decades to the personal and away from more narrative forms.  But sometimes the personal can mirror what's going on in society."

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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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