When asked, “What is your view of the function of poetry in today’s society?”, poet Mark Strand replied, “It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human.” This commentary left a distinct impression on me as I listened to Mark Strand answer questions during one of Brigham Young University’s English Reading Series in 2012. At that point, I had already felt the pleasure that comes from reading poetry or hearing it recited, echoing the sentiments of other distinguished poets: “The best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can” (Matthew Arnold); “Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) to cite a couple. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the beauty of a poem for the first time, to feel its sustaining, delighting influence, to bask in loveliness, to gain a new perspective on the complicated existence of happiness and horror twisting into a new and profound sense of understanding that produces delight from the mere presence of an undiscovered element to add to one’s own opinions about human existence.
Reading and listening to Mark Strand’s poetry has provided me with a small taste of the profound sense of understanding Mark Strand reached in his musings. His poetry has led me on his journeys of falling in love, traveling on a train, experiencing the finality of words upon death, reimagining Jesus Christ’s last moments, and contemplating one’s own existence in the world. I have been transfixed by his words, leading me to experience the following so articulately described by Adrienne Rich: “But what has this to do with me? Do I exist in this poem? . . . We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us.” Poetry can give a universality to the human experience, even if one does not directly experience the events that inspire the conception of the poem. Langston Hughes, in his criticism Jazz as Communication, relates this universality by comparing jazz to many different art forms including novels, concluding, “Jazz is a heartbeat—its heartbeat is yours. You will tell me about its perspectives when you get ready.” The different perspectives that exude from poetry allow people to “receive the experience of the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend” (Rich), perhaps, in a sense, to experience others’ heartbeats that turn out to be not unlike your own.
Inserting one’s self into poetry and following Mark Strand’s advice to read poetry every day seems like a worthwhile endeavor to create more humanity and deeper understanding of the people around us, especially those who have different ideologies from our own. An opportunity for practicing such an understanding of human nature presents itself in Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel’s recent article with the tag line, “Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.” Creswell and Haykel argue that jihadist poetry is how the jihads communicate within themselves, since poetry is held in high esteem in Arabic culture, rather than creating material for those outside their group. In this sense, Creswell’s and Haykel’s analysis of poetry provides a new perspective for the jihadist mindset. They write,
“Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms . . . but poetry is its heart.”
Their article gives a compelling overview of the history of Arabic poetry and how it fits into the aims of ISIS, creating a fuller description of the jihads and those sympathetic to their movement. Reading their poetry deepens our understanding of the ideological and cultural foundation for their decisions, offering insight into how to approach the jihadists.
While not excusing those who infringe upon the rights of others, which often leads to destruction, reading poetry can help people develop an empathic unsettlement for those people who do things contrary to our ideological views, people who ultimately desire to experience the same universal rights and feelings. Such an enlightening practice of empathy could provide invaluable insight into how to approach the Other, especially once we truly try to comprehend the cultural differences present in groups of people that we otherwise may never understand. Perhaps Mark Strand underestimated the impact of poetry. Perhaps poetry does have the power to change the world.
This article was written by Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern