Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poetry Is Dangerous

Since April 21 is Al Purdy Day, I think it appropriate to consider this phrase I heard from Al back in the eighties when he did a reading in Hamilton. I don’t remember the ins and outs of the discussion that led to this remark but it did stick with me, and to such an extent that I had it engraved into a bracelet.

So, poetry is dangerous? Aside from possibly irritating someone bigger and stronger, how can there be anything “dangerous” about playing around with words? Al gives a tongue in cheek glimpse of the dangers in his poem “At the Quinte Hotel” but it can run deeper than a bar brawl.

There is, of course, the physical: when some macho man takes delight in manhandling the wimp poet. That is the least of a poet’s worries. It is the ambiguous influences of poetry on a life that are more dangerous and perhaps not as easily recognized.

Poetry, the making and writing, the publishing and performing – “chasing the Muse” – can become as consuming as an addiction. When all of the poet’s time revolves around poetry, the “normal” aspects of life suffer. Poets may isolate themselves from their family and loved ones. Their circle of friends becomes a collection of only those who deal with poetry. You seldom find a fervent poet who writes “on the side” no matter how good or dedicated they are. And how much good is a life spent scrambling from grant to award and all the stops between?

We poets cannot live by words and poems only. We need to live, to dig our fingers into the soil and cup water in our hands even if metaphorically. To exist otherwise is dangerous. Dangerous to ourselves and how others perceive us but also dangerous for our work, for our mission. If we isolate ourselves from living as others live, how can we experience that life, explain its joys and sorrows, explore its meanings. Isn’t that why we are poets?

So keep a wary eye out for what poetry may be doing to you. We know it’s not easy; when it begins to seem so remember, the muse is cunning and powerful. Or as Al Purdy warned me, “Poetry is dangerous.”

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