Thursday, April 19 , 2018, 7:15 am | Mostly Cloudy 49º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Poetry Beyond April

Santa Barbara knows how to celebrate April National Poetry Month. Our town becomes loaded with readings and activities that bring poetry to our attention. But what can it do for us the rest of the year?

The word comes from the Greek “poieo” or “I create.” Poetry is one of the earliest forms of literature. In those days it helped people remember and pass on their stories, legends and information through oral communication similar to a tribal chant.

The more structured epic poems go back as far as the 18th century B.C. Early works like the Greek Iliad and Odyssey were followed by those from Roman, Indian and other ancient civilizations.

During the centuries, poetry has changed but remains a vital part of literature and communications.

I asked four Santa Barbara poet laureates about their takes on poetry, especially in these times with technological overload or, as former poet laureate Perie Longo, 2007-09, (What Breathes Us: Santa Barbara Poet Laureates, 2005-2015, Gunpowder Press, 2016) puts it, “technology fatigue.”

Poet laureate, 2009-11, David Starkey, co-publisher with Chryss Yost (2013-15) of Gunpowder Press, talks about a current project he is working on: judging poems for their annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize.

“They’re all submitted digitally, so I’m reading them on my laptop. Most of the poets who submitted their work first heard about the prize through Facebook or Twitter or some other online forum," Starkey sad.

"Of course more and more poetry journals are transitioning from print to the Web, so even when the poetry itself is fairly traditional, the medium through which it is communicated may well be 21st century,” he said.

He adds, “Nevertheless, my favorite way to read poetry is still in a good old-fashioned book, preferably somewhere quiet and disconnected from the wired world. I like to dive in, with a minimum of external distractions.”

Current Poet laureate, 2017-19, Enid Osborn (When The Big Wind Comes, (Big Yes Press, 2015) also views poetry as a successful way to take a break from technology fatigue.

“It is about attention, the ability to prolong attention. Devices are addictive. They make us jumpy," she said. "Poetry can heal this by offering a connection to--and nurturing our natural curiosity about — what another human being thinks and feels.

“To read a poem and digest it, we must disconnect from the noise in our environments and the noise in our brains. We must unplug our devices and listen to the rush of our own blood. A change of rhythm is absolutely necessary,” she said.

Westmont professor Paul Willis, poet laureate, 2011-13, (Getting to Gardisky Lake, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2016) said:

“Good poetry does not pontificate. It is the opposite of a declarative Tweet (at least of the sorts that have become so famous this year).

"Poetry honors the shy things around us and the somewhat hidden parts of ourselves—precisely the stuff that gets trampled upon in public discourse and the amped-up space of the Internet,” Willis said.

Talking about the importance of poetry in today’s tech world, Longo quotes Wallace Stevens that a poet’s function was “to help people live their lives.”

Willis also mentions that Stevens had come to mind with another quote: “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.”

Willis then offers his interpretation: “I think he is talking about the daily necessity of making genuine contact with ourselves and with the world around us.

"I notice that he does not say ‘making the world right’ but ‘getting the world right.’ Poetry helps us to gain that equilibrium we all keep seeking and all keep needing to reestablish,” Willis said.

Longo sums up the difference between poetry and social media:

“Poetry gives us something to think about and feel outside the barrage of news. I would like to say it restores and balances us and reduces anxiety. Research has shown healthy expression of feelings in poetry increases the immune system.”

The poet laureates each talk about how poetry affects them and readers.

Osborn recommends how to read a poem:

“Finding the frequency at which a poem was written is like finding the frequency necessary to speak to a person of another culture, a magical being, or an animal. We must adjust. A partial connection is frustrating, like a fuzzy phone call.

“But to really take a good poem in, we must still the world around us and listen to the poet's voice. We must make our best effort to join that unique frequency.

"Inasmuch as we can drop into that frequency and listen, we can dig the poem. We owe it to the poet, who is coming to meet us with clear intention.”

Starkey adds another dimension:

“Poetry also helps me think. Even as one part of my brain is following the words as they move down the page, another part is off somewhere else, making connections triggered by the poem’s images and ideas, and then I’m having new thoughts inspired by what I’ve just been thinking.

"Many people think of poetry as something assigned in school, something boring or preachy. But a good poem is the opposite of all that: it’s a real rush.”

One of the best lessons in editing is writing poetry. Nothing teaches better the importance of each word. Repetition, over describing and dragging material out does not work in a poem. Each word must be efficient, creative and necessary.

Osborn sees another side to poetry — reading out loud:

“I find that many of my friends do not connect to poetry on the page, but deeply connect to spoken word. Poetry is the rock of oral tradition.

"There are many good online recordings of poets reading their work, but you have to connect to a device to hear them — ha!

"I would strongly urge people to come out to hear the poets in our community. We have many gifted poets here. Check for local readings.”

She follows through with another perspective:

“This practice (of deeply connecting to poetry) is as beneficial as any other form of contemplation. It is very good for our brains, this quiet exercise, this digging someone's thoughts. It helps us find and nurture our own rhythms.

"If one is a writer, it can help one to recognize and greet their own authentic voice.”

Willis quotes from the late national Poet Laureate (1970) William Stafford, who lived a short time in Santa Barbara, “Poetry is something you see out of the corner of your eye.”

What does poetry do for us? The answers are endless and deep with soul meaning. Longo sums up how it can go for the rest of the year:

“Poetry gives us language to express the deepest emotions of joy, grief, astonishment, love, loneliness. Poetry may not change the world but it changes us.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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