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May 13, 2010

Up on Hawthorn Hill: Poetry and planting seed

— There has always been a great deal of heated debate about the value of poetry. For me poetry has always provided a very useful service. It abstracts life in such a way that it is possible to stand back a few feet from immediate experience and see it anew through the unparalleled beauty of poetic language.

All too often we speed our way through life without giving much thought to why we do what we do or why we think the way we do.

The way I see it, the absence of reflection is the cause of much of the divisiveness that characterizes American life these days.

By that I mean that each of us is so deeply embedded in our own well fertilized and fortified belief systems that the thought of a competing ideology having any value at all is anathema. That is a shame because if evolutionary theory teaches us anything at all it is that incest is not best.

We pay lip service to discourse and diversity, but it turns out to be a difficult task for most people.

When I read a strong poem it always makes me see things differently. It forces me to wrestle with perspectives that might never have occurred to me had not the likes of a Frost or Keats seen fit to couch ordinary experience in an extraordinarily unique way.

I find the challenges that strong poetry offers to be of immeasurable value. I use the term `strong’ as a way of setting it apart, frankly, from so much of the self-serving, incoherent gibberish that all too often passes for poetry these days. The best poets among us need not, as a former mentor of mine put it, ``put on a show.’’

I bumped into Frost’s poem ``Putting in the Seed’’ the other day while idly thumbing my way through a well-worn paperback collection that is always at the ready on the table beside my reading chair.

As a lifelong reader of Frost, it always surprises me when I happen on a poem I have not read before. As it happened, I had planted our peas several weeks before and every morning on the way back from getting the paper had stopped by the lower garden where they are planted in raised beds to see if their little heads had popped up out of the soil yet. In the poem Frost writes that we gardeners are slaves `` to a springtime passion for the earth. / How Love burns through Putting in the Seed.’’

Frost characterizes that first appearance of seedlings in this way: ``When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed, / The sturdy seedling with arched body comes/ Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.’’

I love the notion of tarnished soil, of that seedling’s lust for life being so strong that it arches its body so as to gain enough force to push its way out of the earth’s dark womb into the light.

As is the case with any good poem, it has planted a seed in my mind that, as it shoulders its way into consciousness, provides me with a new way of seeing and thinking about the miraculous nature of life itself. A poem that is worth reading always asks that we think differently about something. That is the value of a new or competing idea.

To be afraid of that which is different, be it a poet’s perception of seed planting or a political position opposed to one’s own, is an admission of weakness. An unquestioned, hidebound commitment to any ideology is a dangerous thing.

Poetry, if given a chance, can help each of us toss off the blinders that so often tarnish our vision.

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