Despite Garrison Keillor and Billy Collin’s best efforts, poetry is dying. My impression is that most people find it to be rather useless. My students with their sticker-covered laptops, their dysfunctional families, with the children they had when they were seventeen, their ailing parents and their broken down cars, with their part-time jobs at the tanning salon and their love of Earth Day are my America. They, unlike Garrison Keillor and his Writer’s Almanac and my smart, charitable friends from college, help me understand why we have morning shows and debates about the Kindle Fire and the iPad. They are good people, my students—hard workers. In general, they don’t believe in taking out student loans if they can avoid it and they are proud to live with Mom and Dad until they finish school. As we read essays titled “Are Too Many People Going to College?” and “Hidden Intellectualism,” they almost unanimously argue that a liberal arts education has no value—that they want to take only the classes that will get them a job. They don’t argue against learning to write, but they’re not convinced that reading nuanced investigations into current events is worth their time, much less reading fiction or poetry.
Meanwhile, Google is making us some glasses to “augment” our reality. My understanding is that as you wear these glasses your reality will be enhanced by layers of information. Say you pull up to a restaurant. With your Google glasses, you’ll see all the reviews on Yelp.com of the restaurant in question. By providing a digital menu, they can help you decide if you want the chicken curry or the veal parmesan even before you step inside. Or, you begin to merge onto I75 and your glasses will flash where you can expect to encounter the latest pile-up as well as the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts. You walk outside and you see the temperature and forecast. You walk off the airplane and maybe you see which of your Facebook friends are currently residing in or visiting your destination. Layers and layers of helpful information to make sure reality is operating at peak performance.
I had no idea that to augment something was to make it larger. I always thought it meant “to improve.” I suppose that is what we all want from our reality—we want it to feel large, like a big, beautiful house of people and things that stimulate us while never taking from us our control.
So there are two ways, really, to augment reality, to make it larger. One way makes sense and the other doesn’t, which is why the one that makes sense will make more money and win more fans. The first way is to add more. Add more ways of doing things, more suggestions, more versions of yourself, more ways to communicate, more layers of information. The more we add to our reality, the larger it becomes. Makes sense. But the other way to make reality more expansive is take more away. Dig beneath surfaces. Scrape off the layers. But, how does something become more by becoming less? It doesn’t make sense, at least not fast enough to matter.
Poetry is in the business of digging and scraping, which is why, in a world consumed by talk of 3Gs and 4Gs, it doesn’t stand a chance. Take this poem about two girls featured on the Writer’s Almanac on April 18th, for instance:
“Here I Am” by Michael Ryan
on a subway station bench
next to two teens, one pretty, one not:
the pretty one keeps saying how much
she’ll miss the unpretty one, kissing her cheeks,
while the unpretty one looks down at her lap
saying no you won’t no you won’t until the train comes
and on goes the pretty one still smiling,
twirling her red plastic clutch, singing goodbye
I’ll call you, and the unpretty one just sits here
like a stone, even after the train is gone,
even after I write this down.
When I read this poem, I think of my friend Lauren in sixth grade who left me at her house while she slipped out the window to meet her high school boyfriend. I think of the way I won’t be able to say a proper “goodbye” when I leave in a month. I think of the ones, including poetry itself, that are left behind because they move slowly. I think of how easy it is to be pretty and how hard it is to sit in one place while everyone else has somewhere to be. In this poem, my reality is reduced to these two nameless girls, yet in this reduction, I find connections that enlarge my reality. As experiences become connected and meaning is added to experience, there is more room to roam and more clean air in this house. I didn’t have to add an extra room for the house to feel larger; I just needed someone to show me the ones I overlooked.
So, some people will be wearing glasses and some will be sitting on subway benches scraping through the layers. The one with the glasses will know to take the train headed to 5th Street before getting off at Park since there’s been a delay due to construction in the East Terminal. She will arrive five minutes early for her meeting at Starbucks where she will know to order the Café au Lait since the tall latte just went up $.50. The barista will forget to mention the Pumpkin Spiced Scone special but she will know about it anyway since she has “liked” this particular Starbucks and received their latest update when she walked in the door. Many things will not happen before they happen. With the pay pad on the counter, she does not, in fact, need to interact with the barista at all.
Meanwhile, the guy on the bench will miss his train because he was too busy eavesdropping, writing something down that he wants to remember later, or talking to the person next to him.
One day, I will make an economic argument for the humanities in general and poetry in particular, but for now, all I have is James Cameron. He’s the bajiollionaire who made tons of money from directing The Titanic and Avatar. For now, he’s what I’m calling “the economy.” What did James Cameron do with all his money? He built a submersible that he could use to go to the very, very bottom of the ocean. The humanities are our submersibles; when everything else is designed to add more layers, writing, art, and music show us how to get beneath the layers we already live with. And that’s my argument for poetry: it’s fun to be the girl who knows where to find the cheapest gas station or the guy who directs Kate Winslet, but when we go home to the house in our heads decorated with our mistakes and our hopes and our pasts, we will all eventually want to get to the bottom of something as large as an ocean.