When Poetry Matters
(A very late response to “Reopening the question: Does poetry matter?” in Meat and Marginalia)
They say that poetry is a luxury. In many ways, art is a passion and a vocation by those who can afford it. It’s not only a matter of material wealth – the great bulk of our writers are people with modest means – but one’s wealth measured in time. Poetry and literature are accomplished with painstaking and undivided attention and commitment not only to revision, but also inspiration.
The significance of poetry, for me, is not to be found on the artistic value of verses alone. The significance of poetry can be found in creativity; the depth and wealth of which can help and teach us to find a way out of our impasse. The method of the poem, in its own simple way, can be translated to the method of our emancipation. While poems and verses can scarcely put food on the table for the lot of people (much less for underappreciated and underpaid writers), the creative mindset required to write a poem – and instilled by the poem itself – in its own simple way, can matter in the grand scheme of development and improvement.
Yet the value of poetry is not solely found in the rewards and awards bestowed upon a good poet. Creativity – the backbone of all art – is what makes a poem a poem. “The writer’s truth” is spoken of in reverence because it surpasses reality and comes closer to truth, the absolute essence of a topic (if it even exists). Creativity goes beyond the tried-and-tested and an understanding of the real; it is the all-accommodating, all-encompassing kind and way of thinking that encourages people to express themselves, to think out of the box, and to surpass their limitations.
Awards and platitudes abound for Filipino writers, no matter how many accusations they get for parochialism or favoritism. There is no shortage of contests for writers to join, and there is no shortage of workshops and seminars and classes for aspiring writers to hone their craft. The vocation of writing is still upheld so much in the Philippines, if only because not too many people are adept at writing and criticizing literature. It still possesses the kind of mystique that provides for it respect bordering on snobbishness, that it’s still a craft of its own; the kind of emotion and response given to lawyers, doctors, teachers, and so on and so forth.
I think that starts with an appreciation for the artistic beyond being just mere luxury. There’s such a thing as being too structured, too scientific, and too realistic about our approach to our problems as a nation that the only recourse is to give up on it, rationalizing our doom. There’s such a thing as dehumanizing a problem, treating it too objectively so as to forget our place in it. Science is a very useful framework for problem-solving, but without creativity the diagnosis goes to naught. If we foster science while disposing of the humanities, we end up with realistic evaluations that do not come close to truth. The method of the poet can encourage all of us to reflect, to see the inner good, and to find reason and fulfilment in what we do.
Creativity has long been part of the consciousness of our people. Yet it seems, at least to me, that the best works of literature are often confined in closed circles of the literati: the best poems and the best essays are kept away from a public hungry for them because a) some writers close themselves to the world and choose to be criticized and praised by their own, and b) the creative is treated as secondary and not complementary to the practical. Not that we look for our J.K. Rowling or make our own version of Twilight – the Filipino is much too creative to be confined to the limitations of versions – but that we establish our ideas of national identity and foster national culture from, at the very least, the eyes of the most artistic among us.
Philippine history has no shortage of artists and poets that contributed to independence. Balagtas, Rizal, Santos, del Pilar, Lopez Jaena, and a whole history book full of writers and poets have each contributed to the freedom of the nation from its oppressors. They took up the task of providing the viewpoint, creating the standpoint, and pointing us to the general direction of our freedom. Sadly, it is difficult to find one who would take up the same duty, burden, or whatever it is that it may be called.
Where are our writers? Where are our poets? Where are our artists, when they are needed the most to provide the most creative point of view, and help seek the most creative solution to the most complex social problem? I do not know for sure where they are, but I call for them to stand up and be counted. Not just as entertainers or ivory tower critics engaged in (I hate this term) literary incest, but to foster a citizenship of creativity. The active one that comes with writing and reading not for the sake of personal satisfaction alone, but for the sake of freedom, justice, and fairness.
The method required of creativity – self-reflection, introspection, coming close to truth – is something that can only be taught by writing prodigiously and reading critically. We cannot develop writing if we do not write, nor can we make ourselves a nation of readers if we do not read. A value of poetry – inspiration – should be molded, developed, and fostered for it to provide a lens by which we can view the world in creative ways, and solve our problems in a creative light. Creativity can be fostered if we treat literature, visual art, and music with the same sense of urgency and importance we place in other important things as science and mathematics. We need to bring it back in schools, our government needs to foster arts and culture, and that the state of arts and culture should be highlighted as a major issue. The poverty of our art is on the same level as our material poverty. We need more, we need to make things better, we need to make art a national concern.
I am not a poet and I am definitely not a writer of the caliber required to meet the demands I wrote in the long paragraphs above. Yet I think I value the role of the artist in nation-building enough to make my call and plea. Should this nation need a cause or an inspiration, the poet – the writer, for that matter – should take up his or her pen, and write not just for the sake of glory or recognition, but for the emancipation of the nation.
Makati City, 3:00 AM