Death by Poetry

As I wrote in my last post, Suppose There is No Armageddon, I threatened my teenaged niece with the specter of reading the aforementioned poem to her if she continued telling me about apocalyptic dooms a-coming.

This got me thinking… and by evening I was guffawing, all by myself, with the notion of poetry as a penal solution. (I tried to tell my significant other about it but as usual my humor didn’t lift his countenance… I often laugh alone. Strange because he’s Irish; but life is mysterious.)

Look at it this way: people hate and fear poetry. Don’t you? I mean, sometimes, once in a long, reluctant while, some poem or other – maybe, like, The Highwayman – stirred your bosom like an egg. Maybe, once, someone read you – gasp, dread – one of their own and you found to your astonishment that it wasn’t so bad an experience after all. But by and large you’d rather watch a commercial for some new pharmaceutical with a hurried, soothing rush of words at the end describing its potential for growing hair on the soles of your feet, making your saliva congeal into Elmer’s Glue, and causing you to twitch uncontrollably until you die a regrettable death – wouldn’t you? Because that in fact is what people do instead of subject themselves to the dreaded P word.

So, why not take advantage of this indisputable fact? The newly-endowed American Poetry Society or whatever it’s called is valiantly attempting to interest the broader populace in this dying art – but why not play on the art’s universal loathedness? I once saw a cartoon where a man loomed over a bed where a woman lay tied to the posts… and she was saying “no, anything but that! Please! Don’t read me your poetry!”

So, here’s how it could work: anyone convicted of any crime at all – or even suspected of one, why not, maybe the sheer power of poetry could get them to confess – would have to listen to poetry nonstop, like, all day long. And in serious cases, all night too. This would go on for as many years as necessary. The poetry could be recorded – that’d be easy – but in some cases poets of every sort could be invited to read aloud, and the poor things would likely jump to do so, even if the listeners were gnarly-eared and cunning, po-faced and slouching, violent and self-aggrandizing, woebegone and self-pitying. I once, years ago, logged into a site called, and saw there were ten thousand members! That was nine years ago – imagine what it must be now! So there is really no dearth of poets – just listeners are in short supply.

Imagine the money saved on all sorts of other penal equipment! I don’t really know what penal equipment consists of, nor am I curious particularly – but I’m quite certain poetry would be better and cheaper. The punishment could begin the moment sentence was passed – which would surely empty the coutroom in double-quick time, making life easier for the janitors, who would not have to hear it (they suffer enough already) as it would follow the prisoner down the hallway. (The bailiff or whatever he’s called, the guards, etc. could wear special poetry-deflecting devices to protect them from the sound.)

Now, here’s my next point: it wouldn’t matter if the poetry was good or bad. What is good poetry? What is bad poetry? It’s so subjective – what’s good for someone (for eg., the poet) is bad for someone else (i.e., everybody except his mother.) Like hair, what’s good one day is bad the next – how many of you poets have written a marvellous thing and the next week you look at it and it’s awful?

What is awful?? I once read a great garage sale find, The Book of Literary Lists. One list was of the worst poets in the English language. And they were baaaad… I howled!!! Oh, what delicious snobbery I indulged in! But still I’d say to all and sundry: there really isn’t any final arbiter except your own dear self in any given moment. And the very worst thing anyone can do is judge their own poetry by their own notion of imagined prying eyes. If you’re a poet, go for it! It’s your song (pitiable by comparison with, like, real instruments and voices raised in melody, I know, but what to do?).

What is good? Nobody’s the boss, nobody. It’s a free-for-all, and since many love to write and few to read, it doesn’t really matter.

Of course, America is not the only culture on earth. (Did you know that?) There are lands and peoples where poetry was and maybe even is revered. Before there was MTV, before YouTube, (and make no mistake, I’m not against YouTube – far from it. I think it’s one of the greatest egalitarian joy-promoters ever invented) in lands far away, people heard their own histories from the poets. They supported them, longed for their visits, depended on them to record in succinct verse the religious wisdoms or follies, tragedies and humors, romances and lilting nature-rhapsodies of their day. I myself was in another life a bard – I went from town to town reciting odes and offering my own peculiar takes on current events – and was treated so very well – I got to sleep by the fire and eat gruel and sometimes meat with it – (I wasn’t so picky in those days, and they hadn’t figured out how to make pesticides yet, or antibiotics or Bovine Growth Hormones) – and drink mead – I was a guy; a woman wouldn’t have been safe in that life, more’s the pity. That was a good life and I want to go back to it – in fact, that’s what I’d really like to do with some of the rest of this incarnation (when I’m not hiking on some of the gentler mountains in New Zealand that is.)

I once spoke with a literature professor from Georgia (I don’t mean Geaw-gia) who said that in his country people regularly came in out of the cold and stood there reciting poetry. They recite it before and after meals. It’s just part of their life. He didn’t mention anyone rending their garments or writhing on the floor in protest, either.

One of the most touching things I ever read was a chapter in the book Beyond the Pollution of the I by Jacques Lusseyran, the blind French professor and Resistance leader: Poetry in Buchenwald. He told how men who knew they were to be sent to the gas chambers next day crowded round to hear poetry recited.

I would call that Life by Poetry. They are taking life into death.. and they might find it there after all – I don’t know. But the chapter is poetry itself – it gets into the heart and raises the consciousness… it deepens reflection. Any words I say here are so much smaller than the chapter – read it, rather?

But back to Punishment by Poetry. Possibly, after all, listening to all those poets, both awful and good, or some really good except for an awful line or two, or vice versa – for, like, years and years – the culprits would either, like, fizz into a pile of rags in the corner and not bother anyone anymore, or they might rise up illumined and healed; or they might file cases about cruel and unusual punishment. Or they might calm down as music soothes the savage beast – for even bad poetry is a sort of music – or – or – well, don’t you think it’s worth an experiment? At the very least it would annoy them greatly – and isn’t that what punishment is all about?