Poetry is not simply a cathartic method of introspection and sometimes therapy. It is a high art that is meant to compel us to think and feel differently about the world around us. Take, for example, the poem “A Small Needful Act,” by Ross Gay. If you read this poem, you discover more about the man Eric Garner who, back in 2014 was killed in New York City by the police. The media covered his death and the discussion about policing and excessive use of force disproportionately upon African Americans in many communities began up again for the umpteenth time. We can get lost easily in the discussion of policy and politics and often forget about our humanity involved in the topic.
When you read Gay’s poem, you discover a fact about Garner that may have never been brought up in the discussion: Garner worked for Parks and Recreation there in the city. Gay instantly takes this fact and grows the poem into a work about the needfulness of small acts of love for our world and that many of the plants Garner had a hand in planting, growing, and maintaining are still growing to this day. This tender fact is one that I love about this poem and re-centers me in the humanity of the discussion and that things are not always binarily black and white. There is a lot of liminal space to these discussions we often overlook.
Here is another example: one of my favorite books from the two thousand and teens era of contemporary poetry is Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. It’s a book filled with space, pop-culture, and family references. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Hubble Telescope, which her father worked on, this book makes me feel luminous but small. Much like the picture “A Pale Blue Dot” which Carl Sagan explains in a very short video you can find on YouTube. We are iotas of a dust mote floating in an unfathomable universe. We think so small and feel too little at times. Poetry helps to re-center us and what this does is improve both our humanity and our ability to empathize.
The definition of empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) is another concise definition for the effect of poetry. We need to understand one another, and poetry changes perspective more than it aims to be pretty. My favorite aspect of poetry, particularly when I write it, is its ability to delightfully surprise us. I think it is the easiest way to change a perspective: giving someone an image they don’t expect that then relates to an concept we haven’t perceived in a long time or maybe not even at all.
I close with this: one of my dear peers in poetry, Tom Snarsky, wrote one of my favorite poems of the year 2021. “The Star-Field Paintings” from his book Light-Up Swan has a line that delightfully made me gasp in surprise at how human and tender it was. The third and fourth line in his poem goes “I just assumed / Corinthians were flowers” and this made me laugh and feel human for how simple the surprise and how easy the misunderstanding could be made. It made me feel human to believe that too.
Poetry is a way to center the mind and heart on things that change us and truly can make us see the world in a different way. It can help us understand situations, people, and events that we would not attempt to go out of our way to do so. It puts us backward in time, forward in reality, and humanize with each other. If you want a better personality, you need empathy. If you need to practice empathy, one needful act of exercise would be to read good poetry.