The purpose of poetry? - It's just plain useful Utility: As National Poetry Month begins, it's well to note poems are tools of life.


March 29, 1998|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Poetry may not be pretty, but by golly it's useful. It's as useful as the cheap ballpoint pen with which most late-20th-century poems are written. It's portable, dependable and, whether colorful or transparent, it's got a thin vein of vital fluid inside, ready to get the job done.

Most poets are eager for their poems to be useful. When they mutter about Art for Art's Sake, they're just going through a spell of feeling useless. Then they get over it and tell us plainly how we're supposed to use their poems.

John Milton let us know that the job of "Paradise Lost" was "to justify the ways of God to man." Less grandly, nationally acclaimed poet Linda Pastan -whose latest collection - "Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998" (Norton, 287 pages, $27.50) - is due out this month, once expressed the hope of finding a poem of hers taped inside a quarterback's locker. Pin-up or a pep-talk, that poem would be useful in supplying reasons to hang in there, fight the good fight, keep on truckin'. Its essential task: to woo the viewer with a reason for living.

Often the poem is assigned the job of wooing in the literal, romantic sense. A thirtyish Marine I know wooed the same woman twice with Romeo's "What light through yonder window breaks?"soliloquy - once to be his high school prom date and, 10 years later, to be his wife. A Shakespeare professor I know used Robert Herricks "To Electra" to woo and win his wife:

I dare not ask a kiss,

I dare not beg a smile,

Lest having that or this,

I might grow proud the while.

No, no, the utmost share

Of my desire shall be

Only to kiss the air

That lately kissed thee.

This device proved so useful she still, after three decades, decorates his professorial lunch bag with magic marker hearts and flowers.

Poet David Bergman confides that he was won by W. H. Auden's "Lullaby" ("Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm. . . ."). Many years ago I was wooed by a redheaded young Scot whom I remember now only as the Midas Muffler Minstrel: He wrote me a long ballad in which I figured as a sort of Loch Ness monster (based on the fact that I'd been standing over him dripping wet from a swimming pool when he first dollied out from under my car).

How could I not go out with him after being made to feel mythic? Decades later, another canny Scot used a poem on me to good advantage. Robert Burns' "Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul," intoned on my answering machine, proved more useful than a caveman's club in making me swoon.

Poems are not always used for the purpose of clobbering. Often a poem is assigned the job of explaining, usually the virtually inexplicable. A student gave me a copy of the poem that had been used to explain how her adoptive mother felt about her: "You didn't grow under my heart/ But in it." A paradox-loving colleague maintains that poetry is useful in communicating the failure of language to communicate, citing British laureate Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning"as a prime example.

Other colleagues join me in believing that the anonymous 16th-century poem "Western Wind," ascribed by legend to a young British soldier killed in a foreign war and quoted below in its entirety, communicates perfectly an almost wordless longing, despite the intervention of five centuries and an ocean:

Western Wind, when wilt thou blow

That the small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!

Particularly difficult is the task of explaining oneself to oneself. For this purpose a painter I know says he found Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" especially useful, claiming it reassured him that being human was not only good but, in its way, distinguished. A liberal arts dean whose sixtieth birthday is on its way claims to recognize his condition best in a Robert Frost couplet: "The old dog barks backward without getting up./ I can remember when he was a pup." Poet Harvey Lillywhite says his career choice was based on dreading to nine-to-five his life away in offices like those in Theodore Roethke's "Dolor," where "dust from the walls of institutions,/Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,/Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium. . . ."

Not so cute

Young poets try to use

poems to explain themselves to their parents. We old poets know this is one job few poems can do. Jessica Simmons wrote a poem called "Explaining Thinking?" which attempts to draw her mother into an exact moment "when your practical self breaks in like/ the emergency operator. . ." and "it's almost as if someone took a/ brick off your scale so quickly that the dish/ snapped upward into the shallowness and/left you as dizzy as its shaking chain." Her mother responded, "Cute!" But of course the word "cute" started out as a contraction of "acute," so maybe the poem did its work after all.

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