I wrote the first poem I remember sharing with anyone when I was about 10 years old. It was a poem I gave to my father after both of his parents died not too long after one another. It used end rhyme, not an unusual place for a young poet to start given how most children’s books used end rhyme. The poem expressed the sorrow of losing parents and grandparents, but is also did something else; it started my life of poetic listening. I heard my father’s sorrow through the gaps of the practical things that were being taken care of and despite his brave front. Whenever people ask me why I am so passionate about getting poetry included in public art movements I always talk about the ways that poetry is both a form of self-expression and a form of listening to the silences that define our lives and giving voice to them.
But why is this important? When Audre Lorde states that “poetry is not a luxury” she is reminding us that if we listen selectively only to the cultural narratives that ground us in histories of inequity and injustice we can’t open paths to equity and justice for ourselves or for one another and we limit the ways we can work together. Without listening to the gaps and silences we can’t really know ourselves, one another, or the world around us, especially if we have not experienced the deep effects of those histories first-hand.
Poetic language inspires people to get past the confines of language that many of us learned while being taught prose: be organized, have topic sentences, use standard English language and grammar…. And how many of us have writing anxiety as a result? But letting go of all of that is the first step when you need to use language to express something outside of the status quo, something that doesn’t ignore the realities that call up a need for change rather than upholding the way things are. (I’m not saying that poetic language can’t be used for those things, but to me that kind of rhyming and rhythm falls into the categories of advertisement or propaganda.) This sounds pretty lofty, right?
We all know what it’s like to feel like we can’t say what we mean or that we are being misunderstood. When that happens, I take a step away from prose and list the things that I think are getting in the way. For example, recently I found myself in a conversation with someone who refused to see my point of view. I took a moment to make a list of how I was feeling (yes, list poems are a real thing). Then, to begin to see what I could learn from the way I was feeling I rearranged the list, starting with something as simple as putting the items in alphabetical order:
Manipulated Disconnected from him
Baited Frustrated with myself
Frustrated with myself Unappreciated
Disconnected from him Unheard
In the second column you can see that some of my emotions emerge from the disconnect rather than leading to it and, in fact, that helped me to understand not only why the conversation took a dive after I realized that we weren’t as connected as I thought we were, but also that most of how I was feeling came from that disconnect. The conversation didn’t lead to the disconnect; it emerged from it. It also helped me to identify that the disconnect was related to competing value systems, an insight that resonated with my more general frustration about the ways people justify their commitments to systems of inequity and injustice. Values—not opinions—separated us.
And the thing about poetry as public art is that it helps us get past that idea of poetry as a lofty art, reconnecting us with the poetic as a vital and creative way to express ourselves and to see how those expressions connect to the world around us. That’s why the Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center’s ArtPath project is so important: it puts art in the world around us and undoes some of the silences that can overwhelm our everyday lives. That they have made poetry part of that picture is a great contribution to public art in Lansing.