This summer, the New York Times Book Review ran an article titled “Does Poetry Matter?” In it, David Orr stated that “poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts.” The article led to a variety of online responses from writers to the Academy of American Poets.
CKP is joining the conversation and asking writers, friends, and other community partners to explain “Why Poetry Matters.” Here is our first entry.
The Mad Hatter of Poetry
Poetry is a broad-brimmed straw sunhat that you put on in mid-July to weed the garden, pulling up crabgrass, thistles, pigweed, curly dock, and shaking the dirt from their roots. The hat’s wide weave casts diamonds of light on your face. It is the black stocking cap that some cancer patients wear both winter and summer throughout chemo treatments and under which their new hair grows slowly back. It is Charlie Chaplin’s derby that rarely sits on his head, but more usually twirls around on the iron tip of his cane. It is a white suede cowboy hat with silver circles sewn into its broad leather band, under which a fat man sweats and dozes through the long afternoon while his radio keeps playing zydeco interrupted by frantic news bulletins on the hour. It is a track cycling racer’s aerodynamic helmet, like a pileated woodpecker’s swept-back pompadour, that cuts through the wind at 50 mph on the velodrome’s banked turns. It is Hermes’ golden cap with wings. It is the carved wooden headpiece in the shape of a six-foot-long crocodile, worn by the Niger River Delta people, with a bird perched on its back, which eats the crocodile’s insect parasites, and a round dish on the crocodile’s snout to hold ritual offerings: fresh fruit, dried fish, sticks of incense. It is a baseball cap with a blue bill and the logo FUCK WORK, I’D RATHER BE FLY-FISHING! It is Josephine Baker’s blue, sequined skullcap with a fan of wild turkey and pheasant feathers. * As with hats, so with poetry. We wear hats in all seasons. Hats can be practical or fanciful. There are hard hats and felt hats. They suit our moods. There is the jaunty insouciance of a newsboy’s red-and-white-checkered cap. But does the hat make the man? Or the woman? Some hats are historical. What is Lincoln without his stovepipe hat? Bareheaded, he is no less Lincoln. But who would he be if he had never worn his trademark hat with the black silk mourning band in memory of his son Willie, who died from fever in 1862? Would Mary Todd have married him without his hat? I’ve heard of big hats that are amorous accoutrements, behind which surreptitious lovers kiss. Poetry, then, as necessary and unnecessary as any hat. The saints in Renaissance paintings wear haloes like hats, tippy gold-plated pie tins they must balance on their heads. But there is the problem of Napoleon’s bicorne hat with its red and gold cockade, the one he wore at Waterloo. Would history have been different if he had worn different headgear? I actually think it might have been. Does anyone wear a busby in Bisbee, Arizona? Why not? It might be too hot. What hats did Pol Pot favor? * Poetry is the mad hatter’s millinery store. Or haberdashery. Come in. See the million and one hats. Try one on. See if it fits. * Poetry is our younger daughter’s conical, fuchsia, seventh birthday hat scrawled with hieroglyphs in gold glitter, the rubber band cutting into the soft flesh of her chin as she blows a noisemaker to hear its kazoo-like shriek and see its long, purple, paper, lizard tongue unfurl and then snap back without catching anything. * Poetry neither matters nor doesn’t matter. It is life’s invisible value-added tax. It will certainly not earn anyone much money. Where are poetry’s plutocrats? An art that exists outside of, and beyond, most economies, why did Wallace Stevens claim in his posthumously published “Adagia” that “poetry is money”? Mere wishful thinking from a poet who, as vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, was already a wealthy man? Or did he mean to suggest, however elliptically, that poetry has a value that transcends the world’s currencies and stock exchanges? Steal this poem. No one will prosecute you. I promise. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard (now in the Pushkin Museum), for 400 francs a few months before his death. Some say that Van Gogh painted his first Starry Night—a view of a bend in the Rhône River with huge, lantern-like stars and the lights of Arles reflected in its dark waters—at night on the river bank with many candles fastened to his straw hat so that he could see the easel. How long did he work on that canvas? If the candles had melted down, his straw hat would have caught fire. Though the story is probably apocryphal and hopelessly romantic, the poet is still a penniless man or woman painting the reflection of stars in a muddy river by the light of a burning hat. * Lyric poetry is the intimate art. The hat should fit the owner’s head exactly. The hat’s inner band absorbs your sweat, gets stained with salt, dirt, the natural oils from your hair, and sloughed-off skin cells. You grow into a hat. So too does the reader approach the poem and make it her own on repeated rereadings. Her head shapes it. We put the poem on, look in the mirror, turn this way and that, slanting the brim down or up to see how it becomes us. We strut. Or does the hat wear us? We exist to show off the hat. That hat, rainbow-striped court jester’s cap with bells, is gaudy proof positive of existence. * In her poem “Exchanging Hats,” Elizabeth Bishop drolly asks, “Are there any / stars inside your black fedora?” She provides no answer. The poem’s job is to provide no answers. 28 million light years from Earth, the Sombrero Galaxy keeps spinning in the constellation Virgo. It is classified as “an unbarred spiral galaxy.” At its center, a supermassive black hole around which a dust lane makes the shape of a giant elliptical sombrero. It is thought to be the brightest galaxy within a 10-megaparsec radius of the Milky Way. Like some poems, it is a universe unto itself. There are mysteries that will never emerge from its supermassive black hole. We walk its dust lane with our fancy hats on. The law of hats: one wears a hat, then takes it off. I wear a favorite poem for a while, then take it off, place it quietly on a park bench so that someone else may claim it, pick it up, turn its brim around and around in both hands before putting it on. Poetry is more than coquetry. Poems are plasma and platelets, are meant to be donated. Think of the universe as a mad hatter who wears poetry—superfluous and necessary—like the shining Sombrero Galaxy that our best words are. A poem’s words are meant to travel light years. Donald Platt