Words matter. They matter a lot. We string words together in myriad ways. Sentences filled with compelling prose. Catchy phrases that inspire us. One-word exclamations, some of which are unprintable and can't be said on the air. And then there's poetry: the exquisitely careful, often delicate, assemblage of words that linger together artfully in ways that are sometimes hard to anticipate when we try out their juxtaposition. Robert Frost wrote, "I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering." Let's hear what Rhode Island's very own poet laureate Tina Cane believes about why poetry matters, about how poetry helps us discover what's most important in our lives.
I believe that poetry saves lives—not the way that paramedics do, as they rush to restore a patient’s breath or shock a stopped heart back to beating—but slowly, over time, poetry can alter the texture and course of a life—and that change can be something of a salvation—by which I mean an opening—by which I mean the making of essential space for reflection and connection--for I believe that poetry—through its fusion of intellect and emotion--compels us to consider more deeply our experience in the world and to cultivate connection.
If, as Socrates said, The unexamined life is not worth living—then poetry can only enrich us, because the effects of an unexamined life exert their own kind of urgency—one that a doctor may not readily recognize and that medicine will not remedy—but which undermine as steadily as any pathogen.
I believe that just as everyone should have an annual check-up, we should also check in with ourselves and others—through poetry—and more than once a year--for there is a poetry out there for each of us, for every day of our lives.
I once heard of a doctor who prescribed poems to his patients—a radical and ingenious practice that, for some, might conjure a 19th century lady sprawled on a fainting couch—since poets and poetry are often mistakenly considered delicate of composition—like snowflakes or butterflies. But I believe--to quote the intrepid explorer Ernest Shackleton—that poetry is “vital mental medicine”--and that poetry builds grit, for poets are among the most resilient, determined people I know--because writing poetry is really an attempt to engage intensely with humanity, and to embrace what John Keats called negative capability—which is the ability to endure uncertainty and mystery,to accept not having answers. I believe that presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, Vaclav Havel, and Barack Obama--who read and wrote poetry—were better equipped as leaders--in an uncertain world--for having grappled with meaning and nuance for having tackled intricacy of thought, and for attempting intimacy through words.
I believe that--while poems won’t block malignant cells or stop a hail of bullets--poetry is an antidote to the alienation of the unexamined existence that through poems we can save lives--our own and each other’s-- by which I mean expand —both our inner and outer lives—by which I mean entire lives, by which I mean: the point.
Tina Cane, Rhode Island's poet laureate, was appointed to her post by Governor Gina Raimondo in 2016.