An appreciation of poetry was not taught in the public schools I went to. Poetry was school assignments, pencil marks in old textbooks, strings of words better put into paragraphs, shades of meaning that took hours to extract, the special passion of one English teacher in ten and one student in a hundred. Or a thousand.
Was there poetry in Shakespeare? That was no way to sell anything to a kid.
Was there poetry in popular music? Who cares, crank it up.
Now when I drive my son to college five hundred miles away and think about my writer friends and my unmet writer ambitions, I see poetry in the trees and warehouses and hillsides passing by, I see it in the sense that poetry slides past my eyes like a landscape seen from the freeway: Far enough away, I can see it for a few minutes and appreciate that there are people whose entire lives revolve around this feature or that; close up, it’s just a blur and goes by too fast. I haven’t time to stop and explore, toe the earth, smell a flower or a barnyard.
One day he had to write a paper. Analyze a poem, the professor said. Write five pages about five stanzas. I was as impatient with it as he was. I remember those days.
“My brain doesn’t do this,” he said. “My brain can do math. This sort of thing makes no sense at all.”
“I know,” I said. “But you have to do it.”
Not very helpful. So I thought of the bigger picture.
“You are learning,” I said, “to write reports on things you don’t understand. It’s a key skill in most jobs.”
He was not inspired.
“If it’s good enough,” I said, “if in other words it requires more energy for them to refute it than to just add it to the record, your job as a corporate drone is secure.”
Still he was not inspired.
“Corporate drones get the paychecks,” I said, and left it at that.
The point of college was clear enough to him. A piece of paper that lets you do things that are sometimes interesting and that pay more than the things for which you don’t need a piece of paper has value even to a twenty year old.
He wrote the paper and got an A. I remained a shill for the long slog towards death that awaits him when he has his degree. The world kept turning. There’s poetry in that, at least.