A favorite writing spot: VMFA

For the second year, I’ve agreed to organize Richmond’s 100 Thousand Poets for Change. As of this writing, venues in 700 cities and 110 countries, in such far away places as Cairo Egypt, Port Au Prince Haiti, and Ulanbaataar Mongolia, are participating with their own vision of an event that contributes to this grand global poetic extravaganza. Cyber shout out to all latitudes near and far from Richmond!

Change gets me thinking. What is changing? What does the writing or reading of poetry change? Is there some sort of Reichter scale for measuring a poetic wave or quiver?

Several years ago during the first week of a university literature class in poetry I was teaching, I mentioned my writing poetry. The eyes of a student in the front row lit up as he explained that he didn’t realize there were any living poets. The few he read during high school, Shakespeare, Frost, Dickinson, and Whitman, were all dead. The not quite apparition standing before him – me – rattled off a list of my breathing, writing peers. A majority of my freshman students, graduates of the SOL debacle, have never read an entire book of poetry. Unless majoring in English, they may very well receive their college diploma without correcting this omission.

There is a growing poverty of imagination in our country, a dearth of critical and creative thinking, a lack of an attentiveness and appreciation of nuance. Engagement in poetry, like the arts in general, contributes to a reversal of this trend.

Ask a poet why she or he writes and any answer can be summarized as this: we must. It’s an imperative. Writing is a non-negotiable activity. To omit it from the week is akin to drinking a few sips of water despite the 8 ounce daily minimum needed to maintain body function. We get weak, dizzy, lethargic, disoriented. We become a sac of skin devoid of vitality. The absence of writing dehydrates the soul.

Unlike Bhutan whose national well-being is calculated upon GNH, Gross National Happiness, ours is calculated by the GDP, Gross Domestic Product: commerce. Poetry lovers realize the need for something more than a singular currency. They cultivate connecting to the shade and light of language and a depth of being that arises when engaging in the breath and rhythm and the sound and sense of poetry. Transformation occurs. A line can transport us from one seemingly finite moment into a galaxy of possibility. We get to pirouette on the dharma of emptiness. We transcend ourselves. We arrive home.

At its best, poetry may do any of the following:

  • Define who we are within and beyond cultural constraints
  • Promote awe and understanding
  • Disrupt assumptions and confound us
  • Provide a refuge from despair, grief, anger, and discomfort
  • Foment the slash and burn of poseurs and the worship of false prophets
  • Establish a refuge from clamor and free the soul to howl
  • Connect us compassionately to body, being, and thinking
  • Position us in the wilderness of consciousness and the streambed of awareness
  • Seed the inner life
  • Offer the hand of thought when no other hand is forthcoming
  • Celebrate paradox, contradiction, the meme in a grain of sand
  • Balance upon the ecology of interdependent expression
  • Get you to turn the page and the page to turn you
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