Why I Read Poetry

“Why I Read Poetry”

by Sam Buntz

My interest in poetry developed in an oddly roundabout way. It wasn’t through school—I can recall reading a little canonical poetry for high school classes, but not too much. (My classes seemed to focus mainly on short stories, plays, and novels—which isn’t something I’m lamenting, of course: I had good teachers and we typically studied the kind of classics that high school kids should be forced to study.) I began to appreciate poetry by reading it while situated within high school, but not for it. In fact, it was while reading a book of essays on Yogic and Vedantic Philosophy—in short, a book dealing with the Wisdom Traditions of Hinduism—under my desk that I first experienced the shock of encountering genuine poetry.

The guru who authored the book cited lines by some of the best poets from the Western Tradition: I specifically recall reading Yeats’ mystical aphorism, “Where there is nothing, there is God”, and Shelley’s nearly-Hindu lines: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the white radiance of Eternity / Until death tramples it to fragments.” Thus a burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy also led me into making what has become a life-long study of the greatest poetry in the Western and Eastern Canons… This actually doesn’t seem particularly odd to me—though it might to some people. The two interests have seemed more than complementary, providing different angles of vision on the Central Fire.

The single verse quoted by this incredibly learned guru—who was superhumanly well-read in the Eastern and Western Canons both, and a genuine Renaissance Man in addition to being an enlightened Sage (for the record)—that most affected me and continued to attend me throughout my life were the best-known lines from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood”: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.”

These may be the greatest lines of poetry written since Shakespeare—actually, they might be better than that (though I would say William Blake manages to equal them more than once or twice; and the other great Romantics and Moderns aren’t far behind). You would have to dig into mystical Persian poetry by Rumi or Hafiz or the Hindi poetry of Kabir—in the original languages, and without translation—to find something roughly equivalent, I’d imagine.

Wordsworth’s lines affected me so strongly because they provided not only an example of what poetry, in my view, is supposed to do: they also pointed the way to comprehending the meaning of poetic experience, as a whole. They weren’t just an instance of that numinous experience, but a key to it. If “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” then poetry exists to help us remember something—namely, our Origin, the “elsewhere” where the soul had its setting, only to rise on this fragmentary world of bits and pieces. The lines resonated with me as they encompassed not only my purpose in reading poetry—they summarized the reasons I had picked up the book on Vedantic Philosophy that contained the quote. Wordsworth concisely formulated my own sense of life, as in a musical progression—something it would’ve taken an analytical philosopher pages and pages to tease out (unless he or she was a philosopher-poet-essayist like Plato or Emerson).

The word “remember” refers, in its etymological roots, to stitching something back together. Re-membering something is the same as piecing together an experience that had been torn apart by time: binding its severed members into a greater whole. And, as Plato said, all knowledge really comes from remembering. (Hence, everyone already knows everything, it’s just a matter of realizing it, or being inspired to realize it by a “midwife of the soul” like Socrates.)

In imitation of the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, faithfully collecting and re-membering the body parts of her dead husband Osiris, those of us who are engaged in poetic and literary activity find ourselves—during our “moments of vision” or in Wordsworth’s terms, “spots of time”—creating wholes from fragments, rescuing the original “Plan of the Temple” from its ruins. This luminous character emerges fully in the greatest books ever written: works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s best tragedies and visionary comedies, or the collected poems of Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Basho or whoever else you want to name. We feel that our experience—which had previously been lived (or rather, endured) in fragments—has suddenly been assembled correctly, having new life breathed into it. The entire order of our being recalls that it is organic, finds a pulse in its wrist. Life is no longer a series of disjointed fragments, but a living pattern—Blake’s “Human Form Divine.”

In my mind, that’s what poetry is supposed to accomplish—the resurrection of a seemingly dead, time-serving humanity into this “Human Form Divine”. As the noted literary critic Harold Bloom always likes to say, the point of reading poetry is to have “more life”—and to have it abundantly. I don’t mean to suggest that poetry is the only way to attain these “moments of vision”—but it is one that finds its authentic mission under attack by people who see no sense in using the Imagination as a key to gaining glimpses of Reality.

In the broader academic universe, we are urged to seek such “moments of vision” largely through amateur political critique or the physical sciences—the first of which can provide no “moments of vision” whatsoever, and the latter of which is but another path to such moments, and a partial one at that. Today, under the pressure of these influences, we have a great deal of poetry that would’ve been better written in the form of a political pamphlet or a rant on an internet comment section than as a proper poem. Wordsworth said that his mind was “sustained by recognitions of transcendent power” attained through poetry; today, we continue to struggle to sustain our impressions of that same power, enduring a great deal of external white noise and fuzz in the process.   But the space and time needed to prevail are still available, if we know where to look for them.