We live in a world of soft apocalypses. You have to dodge them like children side-stepping cracks in the pavement — hop over the COVID-19 pandemic, big leap over the looming economic crisis and cross your fingers as you cross the street to avoid global warming, a crack too large to make over with simple hopscotch techniques. In a world such as this, it is easy to submit to the constant reminders that things are bleak and we are ephemeral. Poetry, in the face of all that decay, seems an insignificant pursuit — a nightlight against a sea of crushing black.
Humanity seems to disagree.
In an article by The Washington Post, it was recorded that younger generations have doubled their consumption of poetry since 2012, and since 2020, National Public Radio notes that every generation’s interaction with poetry has increased by 30% compared to the previous year. When the end threatened, people turned to poetry, and it’s little wonder why.
Poetry is a picture frame that captures the abstractions of emotion and gives people an outlet to the otherwise unnamed.
Poetry is a picture frame that captures the abstractions of emotion and gives people an outlet to the otherwise unnamed. As an article by the MIT Press reveals, when reading poetry, the mind is engaging both the control and default networks of the brain. The control areas of the brain are associated with hard, critical thinking, while the default networks deal with introspective and abstract thought, akin to daydreaming. The process has been studied extensively in a field known as “neurocognitive poetics,” as termed by neuroscientist Arthur Jacobs. Poetry allows the brain to wander, even as it engages it in active contemplation. It at once allows for escape and connection. There’s more to poetry than just daydreaming though, and in such uncertain times, the security of connection seems to draw people into poetry as much as the science of it.
Poetry provides insight into vignettes of human experience that connects not only our brains but us to each other. Ilya Kaminsky, an American Ukrainian poet in an article from The New York Times, points to hundreds in Ukraine who attended a poetry reading over Zoom as an example of how poetry ties ribbons from one person to another. Even in the midst of war, people are coming together to share something that they cannot find on their own, and poetry is the conduit.
Closer to home, as part of the UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures program, U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón filled an entire auditorium full of students, teachers and community members alike. To be in the room was to see an entire sea of people lean forward in their seats to listen to Limón read out her poetry and the inspirations behind it. The audience chuckled, smiled, clapped and, during a poem about Limón’s mother, cried. It was a room of perfect strangers who for a few hours that night were perfectly understood. It is a phenomenon that poetry was made to facilitate, but there are still those who see poetry as something inconsequential.
Poetry in the modern age has often been dismissed as being too fanciful or intangible or perhaps just too far removed from what people are feeling to provide comfort. Aren’t all poems about love? Aren’t all poems about heartbreak? Aren’t all poems just a little bit undecipherable? And while it is true that there are love poems and sad poems and truly bad poems, the beauty of poetry is that it encompasses the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience. Whatever one is feeling, whatever one needs to hear, there is a poem made for that occasion, that feeling, that secret that you thought no one could ever understand. Poetry, at its best, as it was made to be, is a conduit for emotion in whatever form it takes. Perhaps said best by Limón herself in an interview, “One of the biggest things about poetry is that it holds all of humanity.”
She could not be more correct.
Every poem has a source of inspiration that translates across the page and brings something meaningful into people’s lives. Poets like Mary Oliver delve into nature to find a simple hope and joy in the world to sustain them. Poets like Richard Siken, as his introduction in “Crush,” co-written by Siken and Louise Glück, points out, detail a spiraling, all consuming panic that chases the reader from page to page. Limón writes with a saturated, piercing voice that seeks to cure existential terror (a common side effect of being alive in the world). For those that want the heartbreak and the love and the holding-on-while-trying-to-forget, Pablo Neruda writes with a crushing vividness that sweeps out to pull the reader in like the tide. Even if you care nothing for the emotional aspect, E.E. Cummings redefined the grammatical and linguistic structures of poetry so that even the most data minded individual has an avenue for scientific examination of structure and verbal presentation within the craft.
Poetry is not a relic of a bygone era. It has never been more necessary. Poetry gives a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others and of the planet. It dedicates our entire brain to looking inward and weaves silk-thread connections between strangers and neighbors alike. In an age of isolation and splintering divides and looming threats on the horizon, embrace poetry and all that it offers. It is, after all, here to stay.
Haley Joseph reflects on how poetry can be a guiding light during dark times and why it has a place in everyone’s lives.