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Without Poetry We are Dead: With It We Die Living

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By Edward Curtin

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From Intrepid Report

"The real end of the world is the destruction of the spirit; the other kind depends on the insignificant attempt to see whether after such a destruction the world can go on." Karl Kraus

Most Americans dislike poetry, or at least are indifferent to it. That is probably an understatement. We live in an age of prose, of journalese, and advertising jingles. Poetry, the most directly indirect, mysterious, condensed, and passionate form of communication, is about American as socialism or not shopping. Unlike television, texting, or scrolling the internet, it demands concentration; that alone makes it suspect. Add silent, calm surroundings and a contemplative mind, and you can forget it, which is what most people do. Silence, like so much else in the present world, including human beings, is on the endangered species list. Another rare bird--let's call it the holy spirit of true thought--is slowly disappearing from our midst.
How, for example, could a noisy mind hovering in a technological jangling begin to grasp these lines from Federico Garcia Lorca's poem New York?

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The mountains exist. I know that
And the lenses ground for wisdom.
I know that. But I have not come to see the sky.
I have come to see the stormy blood,
the blood that sweeps the machines on to the waterfalls,
and the spirit on to the cobra's tongue.

Can you imagine telling someone in the U.S. what you did for a living was write poems? They'd look at you as if you were from outer space, some weirdo, probably a secret Russian agent, out to corrupt the youth of the land.

Long dead poets are okay in school, of course. They're safe, since what they have to say is assumed to have no direct bearing on the present. They call them classics, and force you to read and dissect a few before you can pass an English course. They sterilize them, and create immunity to their power in students. As one of our great poets and man of letters, Kenneth Rexroth, has written, "The entire educational system is in a conspiracy to make poetry as unpalatable as possible ".everybody is out to depoetize the youth of the land." In this regard, the schools do a terrific job. Most students graduate with the firm intent never to open another book of poems, and they don't.

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There are minor exceptions to this dismal picture of schools and poetry. There is a national program in the U.S. called Poetry Out Loud that introduces a small percentage of high school students to poetry. It is a program that individual schools can adopt and takes place a few weeks every fall. Being voluntary, it depends on the motivation of the country's best English teachers (my wife being one) and enlightened administrators to support. Highly motivated students choose from an extensive list of poems. They must memorize their selections, and then recite them before their respective schools. Their recitations must convey the inner meaning of the poem, and their performances are judged on that and stage presence. The winners advance from schools to counties to states to national winners. One hopes that many of these students carry a love of poetry into adult life, although I would add a few caveats: competition and performance. Great poets, while not immune to those twin vices, are primarily devoted to art as a vocation. They compose in the spirit of inspiration. Nevertheless, Poetry Out Loud is a positive development.

But the vast majority of students are not part of this program, which is a shame. From their meagre educations about poetry's importance to their lives, perhaps this would be the only echo they would remember: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one to the mall."

Poetry, they've learned, has no bearing on life; it's impractical, too meditative, nor will it get you a job. These words follow them to college, and their parents usually reinforce them. Poetry is not one of the highly funded and promoted STEM (Science, Technology, Education [a misnomer for schooling], and Mathematics) disciplines that will supposedly lead to the gravy train. Students' minds and emotions, following the corporatization of schooling, have been digitized. Their faces often reflect the affectless nature of the little machines they are constantly fingering and assiduously searching, as if for secret messages. They meditate on Facebook as nuns do on their rosary beads and a few poetry lovers still do on lines from Rilke:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

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In this the young are like their poetry-avoiding parents and teachers who have not walked out but have walked into a technological labyrinth that devours their spirits -- consumes them as they consume. It is no wonder that a company has been formed to study and report to the corporations on their emotions. Affectiva (no, not a yogurt) describes its mission as follows: "Our mission is to bring emotional intelligence to the digital world. When we digitize emotion it can enrich our technology, for work, play and life". Spun out of MIT Media Lab, our company is leading the effort to emotion-enable technology. From understanding how consumers engage with digital content, to enabling developers to add emotion sensing and analytics technology to their own apps and digital experiences."

Reading faces, not poetry, is their business. They measure and analyze facial expressions of emotion with the assistance of The National Science Foundation. So they say. They have no clue that the living poems that are persons need to be pondered intimately to be known; that behind every expression is a meaning. Their manipulative stupidity is so great, and their clients' faith in technology so touching, that they both assume the outer is the inner, that faces tell the story of the spirit's truth, the living meaning of a person's heart. They read the face on the book's cover -- as with Facebook -- for its contents. They seem ignorant of Shakespeare or the actor's art. They are killers of the spirit and typify the anti-poetic ethos that reigns in the U.S.

Compare the technological face-readers' manipulations with the truth of these lines from Galway Kinnell's poem, "The Fundamental Project of Technology."

To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete,

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Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is

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