College is hard. Like, honestly. It’s tough enough some weeks just to keep myself alive – what’s the move when you’re too sick to go to work but you need the hours to make next month’s rent?? – much less stay on top of my school work, maintain my relationships, and keep up with all my extracurricular activities. And I’m not a collegiate overachiever by any means. Today I was in a meeting with a woman who kept reminding us she’s working three jobs to put herself through grad school – a little obnoxious but I thought, you know what, good for you. You go right ahead and fish for the recognition you deserve.
On top of the day-to-day demands of young adulthood (not to mention the intense self-discovery, relationship drama, etc.), we’re also in the thick of some hardcore political turmoil. It’s exhausting just to follow the news, research local candidates, and get to the polls (but make sure you get to the polls!), and many of us are going beyond that, taking time out of our nights and weekends to canvass and phone bank for candidates we hope might be able to pull us out of the mess that has been the last two years.
With all this going on, I get it if you’re thinking to yourself, Poetry? What good can that possibly do me now? How is poetry supposed to pay my bills, remember to call home on Mom’s birthday, save a democracy?? Well, fine. But in other ways, the practices of reading and writing poetry are more important now than ever, and I’ll tell you why.
In the first place, I’m discovering as I get older what a deep need I have – and, I think, we all have as human beings in our chaotic society – for restful activities. I mean sleep, yeah, of course. But during our waking hours too. Since I’ve moved out, my mom has turned dinner time into a space for this: every evening, my parents and four younger siblings eat in candlelight, and begin the meal with 30 seconds of meditative silence. A little weird, sure. But it gives everyone some relief from the brightness and noise of their schools and jobs; from the world. I think poetry accomplishes the same thing. Spending a few minutes with a poem at the start of or during a hectic day allows me to remove myself from the chaos of my life. As college students especially, and in the fall of 2018 especially, we need that kind of reprieve just to muscle through to the next day.
Poetry also facilitates emotional awareness in ways other parts of my life actively repress. It’s all too easy to plop down on the couch after work at night and spend a few hours numbing any stress, sadness, or political outrage I feel with a mindless TV show. Other days I process my feelings with food – ever had those dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s? As many of those as I can put away, they don’t reflect my own feelings back to me the way a good poem does, often more clearly than I experienced it in the first place. They don’t give any space to the little pains and joys and frustrations with which I’ve filled my hands and pockets by the time I get home.
There’s one more thing, and it’s probably the most important: at a time in our lives where self-absorption is a necessity of survival, and a time in history where we’re constantly at odds with the people around us, poetry reminds us of our humanity. It connects us to others. It deepens our capacity for empathy. It teaches us to recognize beauty in people and in the world. In other words, poetry enriches our lives.
In his essay “Why Poetry Is Necessary,” Roger Housden quotes a headstone in a Long Island graveyard which reads, “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves, they can do little to save humanity. Without them, there would be little worth saving.” I would add, for the months you can barely afford groceries and the mornings you struggle to get out of bed, that poetry makes life worth maintaining, too.