Vital Signs

On Poetry

People want to save their souls by writing poetry, or so they say. Should we take that seriously? Did Smart save his soul in the madhouse writing all those lucid lines? Perhaps it's enough to say that from primitive times there has been a need for expression.

Poetry is older than prose. Poetry was the morning cry when coming out of the cave to see that the sun had arisen again, a high song of joy in the treble clef It was also the low sounds of grief at the death of a child who had wandered away from the cave and been killed by an animal. Our early ancestors probably knew the whole range of emotions from joy to sorrow, from lyric cry to threnody.

Nowadays prose must outnumber poetry quantitatively nine to one. Millions of Americans get along from birth to death without poetry—well, maybe they read a poem in a newspaper, but they then forget it. Yet however mechanical our age becomes we have to deal with prose all the time. We have to read, if only traffic signs; we have to be instructed; we have to give instructions. The prose of the day may be some kind of computer language, part mathematics, part English, as a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa orator warned at a commencement not long ago; and it may be a dangerous sign of possibly losing the collective mind, as she put it. But at least prose is for everybody. Poetry is not.

New poems are sometimes new half a century later, as is the case with my own "The...

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