NEW YORK ENCOUNTER 2018 — James Davis May, recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Cecil Hemley Memorial Award and author of the poetry collection Unquiet Things, was not shy of the poetry stereotype: an art form “only for those with nothing to do.” With such endearing bluntness began the presentation between this inspired poet and his muse, Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and author of the national bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry. With the passion and fervor that both successful poets exhibited not only to write, but also to teach and spread poetry, the significance of the art form was revived and the common-known stereotype proven empty. Both May and Hirsh made it clear that poetry is not for the escapist, but rather for those determined to find a tenderness within the brutal, a connection within the distraction and a unity within the disarray.
May is an assistant professor at Young Harris College, teaching Creative Writing and English. His poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, The New Republican, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He won the Collins Award from Birmingham Poetry Review in 2013. On par with his colleague, Hirsch is the author of nine poetry collections and recipient of many awards and fellowships.
The two poets began by determining the origins of the poetic stereotype. Hirsh emphasized three main causes. He explained that the teaching of poetry particularly in American high schools does not provoke the charm and captivity of the art form. Rather, teachers are told to parcel through poems, leading the class in the monotonous task of counting lines, syllables and stanzas. As poets themselves, Hirsch and May called for a different curriculum–one that exhibits the energy and meaning behind the poem before stressing the structure. As Hirsch articulated, “no one cares that a poem is a sonnet,” until one understands the meaning behind the deliberate words, literary devices and structure compiling the 14 lines.
The second difficulty with poetry in the United States is a lack of appreciation of poetry within the family. In many other countries, a cultivated loyalty towards the art form originates from childhood. Like nursery rhymes and fairy tales, poems written during the history of those cultures are passed along to the present and become a staple of family life. However, this is far less ingrained in American culture, and thus poetry is typically not introduced until adolescence.
Lastly, Hirsch turned to the pressure on society to succeed and to find money-making career paths. Poetry, like many other artistic professions, elicits “suspicion” from the public, for its career-path is unorthodox compared to the pursuit of business, engineering or medicine. As a result, there is a societal detachment from and even a fear to gain a passion for poetry.
And yet, in the presentation, it became clear that poetry may be a way to elevate the polarized society we see today–a way to find this “‘Impossible’ unity” within a very fragmented and suspicious culture. May is optimistic: “Poetry offers an alternative to the brutal discourse” we are seeing in our country; it offers a “tenderness” that is severely lacking within society. Although more skeptical, Hirsch agreed that poetry would ideally undermine the incessant distraction around us.
What our country is lacking, according to Hirsch, is contact. Poetry fills this gap; it offers a connection between two people–the writer and the reader–that blossoms into a personal relationship. Poetry “opens up a space inside of us … a common connection” which purely bridges the story of the reader with the story of the poet. This so simply embodies the theme of the New York Encounter. How elegantly such an impossible unity is! That, despite never meeting each other, two people may connect so personally based on the suffering and joy behind written words. This is what our country needs: Something that unifies us and bridges a relationship between us–something that elicits empathy and tenderness towards another.