William Edelen: The Power of Poetry


The Contrary Minister

With all of literature, I think it has been great poetry that has influenced my life and thought as much as any other. “There is more truth to be found in poetry than in all the philosophy ever written” wrote Octavio Paz, Nobel prize winner in Literature and Poetry, who was called “the soul of Mexico”

A perfect example is Pablo Neruda. This last week was the exhumation of his body to see if he was murdered. Neruda was a giant among the worlds great. His poetry was a monumental masterpiece of truth in the political life of Chileans. He is the poet of the eternal present. LIfe cannot be repressed, he whispered in everyone’s ear. He may have been killed for that. But the message lives on in his poetry.

Poetry is language in its most exalted, delighted and concentrated form. Maya Angelou has said; “Poetry is music written for the human voice” Again, Octavio Paz put it this way: “when you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry”.”When you listen to poetry being read well, you are a witness to the marvel, you are experiencing the marvel.

Against the vulgar images of advertising that daily infect us, against the barbaric rhetoric of politics, poetry stands as a beacon to human feelings and senses, as well as the human imagination. Stanley Kunitz, twice Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote: “a word is a utilitarian tool, and we have to re-create it to make it magical.”

The New York Times recently wrote this about the subject: “Poetry readings have moved out of the smoky cafes to become a staple of the cultural scene. Poetry readings are held at over 150 places in the New York area alone. The renaissance of public poetry is over the entire nation.”

A poet-scholar who has influenced me greatly is John Neihardt whose bust is in the rotunda of the state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was Poet Laureate of Nebraska, as well as Missouri, the author of the classic “Black Elk Speaks,” the author of many books poetry including “An Epic of the West,” and some of the most beautiful erotic love poetry ever written in “A Bundle of Myrrh.”

Anne Kingsford, writing about “the poet,” used these words: “The great continual cadence of universal life moves and becomes articulate in human language. The daughters of earth love thee, the water-nymphs tell thee their secrets, thou knowest the spirit of all silent things. Thou art multiplied in the conscience of all living creatures and the pulses of the infinite deep… vibrate in thine own.”  This short paragraph is only a beautiful sample of the entire essay.

When John Neihardt was being interviewed on the Dick Cavett show at age 92, he recited “The Village of Crazy Horse” from memory, it lasted over 10 minutes. Cavett said he had never received so much mail applauding a show in his entire career. Neihardt came to believe that a dynamic spiritual pattern is at work in the cosmos, and that our destiny is spelled out in such a pattern. (“There is a destiny that shapes our ends… rough hew them as we may” Shakespeare)  I think you can understand why he is one of my influencing heroes… a brilliant poet who turned language into music. He gave us the language of life.

In 1956, the National Poetry Center awarded Neihardt the Medal of Honor as foremost poet in the nation.

I will let Octavio Paz (another hero of mine) have the last word: “When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to MAKE life a marvel, that is the role of poetry.”