My name is Michael Meyerhofer, and you’ve never heard of me. That’s OK; I guess it’s my own fault for consigning myself to such an obscure, marginalized pursuit as contemporary poetry. Then again, poetry also happens to be what brings me my greatest satisfaction, that motivates me to learn and drives me to communicate. I believe that as human beings, we must learn to value our labors even when there’s no great dollar sign attached, and pursue vibrant, personal expression–even if no one is listening.
Recently my friend, a superbly talented poet, decided to hang up her pen. She said she wanted to pursue something else, something that would allow her to have a greater impact on the world around her–like working in a soup kitchen, or being a script writer for the next American Idol. I thought I owed it to the ever-tenuous future of those dusty English literature anthologies to try and change her mind. I have to admit, though, she had a point.
“For poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W. H. Auden. He had a point, too. I can’t think of the last revolution started, or the last dictator overthrown, because of a poem. No poem ever pointed the way to a better cancer treatment, eradicated the disease of racism, or offered a good, genuine solution to our stricken economy. More often than not, poetry even fails to convince our ex’s how wrong they were to leave us! So what’s the point?
I remember thinking when I was young that it would be cool to join a monastery. I wasn’t particularly religious, or fond of porridge, but I thought it would be interesting to devote one’s life to the sole, solitary causes of self-improvement. The problem with that is the word solitary. We humans are social creatures, whether we’re working in a high-rise or digging ditches. Americans in particular are taught to value hard work and education only when there’s a big, tangible gain attached–either cash or, in small doses, philanthropy.
For the most part, poetry offers neither. True, there’s the occasional grant; yes, Tony Hoagland’s wonderfully irreverent poem, “Suicide Song”, may have saved a life or two, but probably not as many as an operator at a crisis hotline. So, again, what’s the point?
For an answer, I turn back to the rest of that famous quote from W. H. Auden. “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper, flows on south from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, a way of happening, a mouth.”
It’s cliché to suggest that what we do should be its own reward, that we should value not the finish but the race before it–the great breeze, the feel of gravel beneath our sneakers, maybe too the grace of the runners beside us. Then again, some clichés happen to be true, and we repeat them like prayers to remind ourselves that–yes–we’re running in the right direction.