I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that poetry is one of the least appreciated and accepted forms of literature. You hear people say “I don’t get it,” “don’t understand it,” “it seems so obscure.” A considerable amount of poetry seems amorphous, like trying to touch a cloud. Some might call poetry arcane.
Throughout most of my early school years, I struggled with poetry. I usually felt frustrated that I wasn’t “getting” what the author was trying to convey. I was constantly besieged with the thought I was missing something, that as a reader, I was failing. But the more I read, and I tried many forms by numerous poets, I eventually began to feel a subtle force pulling me in, like gravity.
Finally, I had the good fortune to begin reading some of Alaska’s more notable poets; namely, its poet laureates. Over the years I became personally acquainted with five of them — all of whom were magnanimous enough to offer me criticism and encouragement on my stumbling forays into this art form. They were Margaret Mielke, Oliver Everette, John Haines, Ruben Gaines and Tom Sexton.
I never met or knew the other Alaska poet laureates: Sheila Nickerson, Richard Dauenhauer and Joanne Townsend. But from a distance, I admired their work. And I never met the Alaska writer laureates who assumed that special title beginning in 2000.
My communications with Alaska’s first poet laureates didn’t turn me into a good poet, or even an average one. But they instilled within me a deeper appreciation of poetry and its many forms. From them I learned that just as all humans are different, so are their poems; and that we should avoid trying to define poetry and placing it inside a calculable box.
Aside from the fact they were Alaskans, what mostly drew me to their poems was their overriding intimacy with nature. That sensitivity shone through all of their work, whether it was how they described the ever-changing light on the Chugach Mountains, the signs of autumn in fireweed stalks, the swishing sounds of a polar bear shuffling through new Arctic snow or, as one of my favorite poets who is still living, Tom Sexton, described joy: “the way honey fills a jar.”
Without ever knowing it, these folks changed my perception of what poetry is and on a deeper level, what it can mean to humanity.
Dylan Thomas said: “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
Thomas refers to “good” poems, and he undoubtedly had the sensibility to judge a good one when he saw it. Certainly, there are a lot of “bad” poems written every day. And there will always be someone, whether it’s a professor or an art critic, perched on some literary throne declaring what is good or bad. But to me, the very act of trying to write a poem, reading a poem and appreciating it in some manner, however small, is a magnificent undertaking.
I’m not going to attempt to define poetry. I’ll leave that to people who consider themselves authorities. But I can describe what it does. I think poetry bonds us with our inner humanity. It can awaken powerful emotions. It can make us laugh, cry, reflect, dream, even evoke anger. It allows us to see around corners, outside boundaries, over horizons. With poetry we can see light where there is darkness, and vice versa. A poem might act like a mirror, reflecting our own image back to us in surprising ways. It might illuminate the way we view others and the world, providing unexpected incandescence.
For those who have never liked poetry, who consider it something akin to a foreign language, I encourage you to take a bold step onto a poetic pathway and give it a chance. Certainly, there will be many poems you don’t like, or “get.” But delving into poetry is like taking a long walk. Eventually, you’ll come upon something that piques your interest and you’ll feel like stopping to take a look.
I’ve been on that “walk” for more than 60 years, and I’m still discovering things I didn’t expect. I guarantee you will too.
Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
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