Why Poetry Matters
Take a look at this stanza from E.E. Cummings:
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
Look at lines 2, 3, and 4. Notice how they suggest two sentences without quite settling down into one or the other. If this were prose, it would say, “Who pays any attention to the syntax of things?” Or it would say, “The syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.” Cummings jams the two sentences together, with “the syntax of things” as the pivot of the seesaw. It’s both ideas at once; it’s neither idea absolutely. It lives in a weird limbo of thought that you can’t quite pin down. That’s what poetry can do.
If you don’t grow up with a facility for understanding how words can do this, you may find poetry irritating—as my 9th grade students did, years ago, when I tried to teach this poem. My students were maddeningly literal—and not just about poetry. No matter what we were discussing, they wanted to know: What does it mean? Is it this or that? It must be this or that! Everything had one meaning—one answer—only. And it was my job to hand it to them.
The inability to handle ambiguity carries over into prose, of course. Poetry is a great place to learn it, but great writers make use of it everywhere. I remember teaching a Ray Bradbury story called “The Dragon,” in which two knights in armor prepare to battle a terrible dragon. The dragon they describe breathes fire, has one horrible, yellow eye, is impervious to knives or spears, and travels the same path between two towns every night, mowing down anything in its path. In the final moment of the story (spoiler alert), as the knights attack the monster, the scene switches perspective, and we see two engineers on a train, mystified at the apparition they’ve just seen. Two knights in armor! They came out of nowhere. It happens every night. So weird.
“Ahhhh,” good readers say. The dragon is a train. The train is a dragon. Cool! But my students did not say, “Cool!” They didn’t get it.
I read the story to them again. They still didn’t get it.
I listed the attributes of the dragon and the attributes of a train, side by side, on the board. Now they kind-of got it. But they wanted to know: “Was it really a dragon or was it really a train?”
My answer was, “Yes.” They were not amused.
They weren’t stupid kids; they just couldn’t process the idea that a thing could be two things at once—that it could exist in a strange netherworld of sort-of-being where both things (and neither thing) were true. There may be different perspectives, different points of view, but one of them always had to be “true.”
So listen. I’m all for better math and science education. I’m all for historical literacy. But we live in a world that can be oppressively fact-filled. Knowing the structure and architecture of a thing is not fully knowing it. There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, not just one. There is more to life than “the syntax of things,” as Cummings called it. It’s important to gather ye rosebuds while ye may. It’s important to hear your being dance from ear to ear. We’re not here for all that long, and there is so much—so much—to learn.