In Praise of Poetry

Essays > Culture In Love with Poetry

Priya Huffman’s thoughts on a not-much-talked-about subject.

One of the greatest travesties of my education was the sad way in which I was introduced to and simultaneously turned off, poetry. To learn ‘by heart’ was a euphemism for learning by rote and bypassing the heart entirely. It became the one subject to be dreaded, as dry as history, with its lists of incomprehensible things to be memorized. This unfortunate state of affairs was compounded for me personally since I had poor recall for things that had no personal resonance.

Many people I’ve talked to tell a similar tale. So imagine as a seasoned adult, my great surprise while listening to David Whyte recite poetry one evening, actually, and for the first time experiencing the poem I was hearing, slipping down into the center of a whole new world, or maybe awakening to a world so old, I had merely forgotten.

deep sea

In a previous time before electricity, even before books were widespread, we would gather around the fire at night to hear singers and poets, the storytellers of the community. The rhyme and meter of early poetry served as a memory prompt to those long tracks of myth or history which were all part of the oral tradition, part of the way most indigenous and early cultures organized to pull their communities together to weave a cohesive narrative, around which we could define the ‘us’ of belonging, versus the ‘them’ of other.

These days, the effort required to even bring a family around a dinner table at night appears to be a high achievement. During the cold winter months, which we are now just shaking ourselves out of, while most of the natural world was in a dormant time of repose, many of us have managed to keep the dark away by attending too many gatherings, pitch into high acquisition mode over the “holidays” sometimes confusing our attempts to give and get love with the sparkle of more stuff than we need. We drape our homes and cities with decorative lights as a way of celebrating the light within the dark, and preparing for the winter yet ahead. But this is also a hedge, a counter point to the natural world which is all about conserving before the great burst into new spring life. We are so often ‘captured’ by our collective culture, either by our full participation or by our virulent efforts to oppose it.

I consider myself deeply fortunate in this regard, for whatever the hurdles and highs along the protracted journey from first poem to ‘book in hand’, poetry affords me the rare opportunity of gathering friends, distant acquaintances and those not yet known to me, around the fire of our shared human experience through words, and the silence that engenders those words, as well as the space between them, to share the long quiet nights, to share the joy of the awakening spring, to harken back to the ritual that binds, if only for a wee while, to ‘soften’ the push and press of the week, through reading poetry aloud.

Poetry allows more space for the imagination than any other literary form, maybe because it is so distilled. It doesn’t tell the story (unless it is a narrative poem), it simply suggests, in a spare bare boned way, an entire world into which the actual writing is compressed, there to blossom out again (like those paper flowers you put in water) opening into the fertile waters of each listeners own imagery and understanding. It provides the mind freedom to roam the far reaches where cellphones cannot find us, there to rest, or waken to the sheer privilege of being alive within our paradoxical human pulls, which asks only one true thing of us, that we show up for the dance.

A wise man and mentor once told me that when the world was in turmoil, the best gift you can give, is to be the calm and center point even amidst the chaos. Reading or listening to poetry encourages that quieting. It is a universal soul language that allows us to quiet enough to hear the music, the beat of our truest longings, the rhythms of our hearts.

Dive

once when ocean diving
there was a ledge
beyond which
you could go down
and down, there was
no end to the down

to the progressive
cold, the darkening
the strange eyed
moray eel, who slid
past in murky half
light, touching slick
green, ever so long
against my skin
so out of its depth

it slithered around me
in a slow circle
while I hung suspended
my regulated breath tight

I cast a line back
to that watery place
and wait
with unaccustomed faith
as the minutes, hours tick

words bite

I draw them up
one by one
or in strings

scrape back to syllable
with sharpened pen
cut back to bone

fluid lines of eel
swimming on paper.

Priya HuffmanPriya Huffman (aka Ma Yoga Priya) holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Psychology, a masters in Psychology, both from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. She took sannyas at Mount Abu in 1973, and rejoined secular life in 1986 as a practicing psychotherapist. Priya is a potter and poet who lives in Boulder, Colorado and Cortes Island, British Columbia. She is the author of ‘The Territory of Home’ and of ‘Bone and Breath‘. priyahuffman.com

More articles and poems by this author on Osho News

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