With SJSU’s week-long Legacy of Poetry 2021 celebration kicking off next week, I recently began to reflect on my own deep affection for poetry and its relevance in today’s world.
Many readers will know instinctively why I enjoy engaging on this subject. My academic studies focused on the well-known poets of the late 16th and early 17th century Renaissance era, and my love and appreciation for those poets and their works since I first was introduced to them as a college student many years ago has never diminished.
In the late 1500s, the Elizabethan poet and Shakespeare contemporary Sir Philip Sidney wrote a piece of literary criticism entitled, “An Apology for Poetry,” also known as “In Defence of Poesy.” That piece – written over 400 years ago! – continues to resonate with me decades after I began studying John Donne, John Milton and so many others.
Before Sidney came along, people generally prioritized the study of history and philosophy when trying to understand the human condition. And for sure, those disciplines were very important and remain so today!
But Sidney recognized that history typically is limited to the study of what has been and what has come before us. Philosophy, of course, can be intellectually stimulating for many, but for many others, it can be cumbersome or even dry at times, and thus unappealing to non-philosophers.
Poetry, he recognized, can touch our hearts and our emotions. Poetry can challenge and speak to our character and the human experience. It is limited only by our own imaginations.
Today, poetry often is thought of as a way for the poet to express their own personal emotions and thoughts. But back in Sidney’s day, prior to the early 19th century Romantic movement represented by poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, among others, poems were more like dramatic literature in that they told stories, often representing a variety of characters and created situations or even dilemmas for the reader. They were often much longer than the poems of modern times and often offered lessons and insights into humanity’s struggles, ethical quandaries and grandest ideals. In all of these ways, early modern poetry was rather Shakespearean in its scope and complexity.
Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” that she read at President Biden’s inauguration, is a wonderful, modern example of the beauty and power of poetry. Though she deservedly received great praise and personal attention afterward, the poem itself was not about her. Instead, she made it about much larger and timely issues, ultimately crafting a work for the ages that touched and inspired millions.
In February, I delivered an online keynote address to the Council of Southern Graduate Schools titled, Humanities for the 21st Century: Innovation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It was a speech I have delivered more than once, and I never tire of doing so since the core message—that the humanities and the arts remain as vital as ever—is an important message of which we educators need from time to time to be reminded.
I bring this up, of course, to highlight for us all how poetry remains one of our most vital artistic and human endeavors. Part of the beauty of poetry, I should add, is that practically anyone can try it! One need not be a scholar of the 16th and 17th century Renaissance poets to give it a go.
SJSU’s Department of English and Comparative Literature is to be commended for its efforts to keep one slice of the humanities and the arts pie—poetry—alive and relevant. The Legacy of Poetry 2021 theme – Closing the Distance: Sheltering in Technolog(ies) – could not be more timely, and I am delighted to be contributing in a small way by offering a recorded reading of one of my favorite poems (I will not reveal the poem here; instead, I would encourage you to visit the Legacy of Poetry website to view not only my video message, but that of many other contributors!).
So congratulations to all those who continue to play a role in our Legacy of Poetry!