Does Poetry Matter? That Question Again!!!

Every poem has an unconscious life…Our poems know more than we do. Read them as clues.

Marie Howe, Venice, July 2014

That’s what poets do: they go to the places that most terrify them and report back.

Patrick Lane, Honeymoon Bay, Vancouver Island, July 2014

Does Poetry Matter? You bet it matters! I have just come back home from two back to back poetry writing retreats: one in Venice with American poet, Marie Howe, and from one at Honeymoon Bay on Vancouver Island with Canadian poet, Patrick Lane. In both venues I have the privilege to witness the birth of new poems during every day of these retreats – poems written as if the lives of the poets writing them depended on it! They did! Not only were so many of these “new-borns” beautifully crafted – poetic artifacts – but in so many cases they led their writers to places of self-revelation otherwise not easily accessed.  For those of us listening these poems were like lanterns in the dark lighting up some of our own hidden, hard to find,  places.  I left both retreats nourished, my bodying carrying more lightly my life and wonderfully, inside me the echoes of the lives of many others.

For me the question, Does Poetry Matter, seems self-evident. But I was reminded of it when I stumbled across the on-line edition of the New York Times yesterday. There, a number of American poets weigh in on the topic. They include David Biespiel, Tracy K. Smith, Patrick Rosal  (click here for my recent post on his poetry), Martin Espada and William Logan. All these responses are worth reading. Gems in each one.

American poet David Biespiel says: Every society we’ve ever known has had poetry, and should the day come that poetry suddenly disappears in the morning, someone, somewhere, will reinvent it by evening. Yes! And why is that, I wonder? Perhaps Biespiel provides a clue when he adds: …. poetry connects us to our past, and poets unmask both private and civic memories, dreams, and urgencies. By harmonizing the body with the mind, serving both young and old, poetry is a guide to deliver us into a fresh engagement with our inner lives and with modernity.  In this quote Bliespiel echoes the comments by Howe and Lane I include at the start of this post.

But the response to the question that hit me hardest came from American poet Martin Espada. For Espada’s response click here.  Unexpectedly, Espada bases his comments on the life of American poet Sam Hamill who founded the celebrated poetry publishing house – Copper Canyon Press – in 1972. In tribute to Hamill, Espade wrote this poem:


For Sam Hamill

Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,
not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer
into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,
promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him
on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.

Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems 
from the prison library, and I know why 
his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.

Those of you who follow my blog posts  know I consider the statement, poetry can save us, as no blasphemy. So I say amen, again and again to Espada and grateful thanks!

And here below is a poem of Hamill’s – not one that shares the agony of his early years when he was given away as a young boy by his father to an adoption agency, but much later – an evocative love letter that does what poetry does best – creates a timeless moment that exists in a kind of forever now! The issness of poetry. That way it saves us!


The powerful aromas of hot olive oil,
basil, and a double-pinch of cayenne
for cooking mushrooms and green onions –
skillet about to smoke, I’m cooking for you again,

and, outside, the pungent odor of rain,
rain rapping windows like tiny fingers drumming.
Oil slides away toward the skillet’s edge
and cackles when I dump the onions in.

In the oven, a salmon bakes in a brew
of butter, garlic, and wine. Coltrane’s
cooking his way through Ole
on the box, blowing ineffably toward the hot

bass duet, and oh, don’t I remember how
beautiful you were that sweltering
summer day, bare skinned, melon juice
running down your chin, and you’re still not

here yet.

Sam Hammil from Destination Zero, White Pine Press, 1995


  1. Susan
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Back to back! Lucky man.

  2. Richard
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Susan! Yes. You’re right! Didn’t realize which firm you were with in TO. Osler’s is my family firm! My Dad the last Osler who worked there!

  3. Liz McNally
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I loved that Biespiel began with these words (written while in BC)
    “Every society we’ve ever known has had poetry, and should the day come that poetry suddenly disappear in the morning, someone, somewhere, will reinvent it by evening.”
    yes, it matters that much.

  4. Richard
    Posted July 24, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    May we both reinvent poetry by this evening! Your poems these days are a huge reinvention! ThaNK YOU!

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