Before the invention of radio and moving pictures, in an era when the New York Times predicted the Americans would have no time for TV, it wasn’t uncommon for a western family to spend an evening by their fireside reading poetry and stories. Those were the days when poets and thinkers were as numerous and essential as grocery stores. Their popularity penetrated both the literary and the commonplace, with the prominent ones celebrated like today’s Hollywood stars.
Soon after, the moon was just a rocket ride away. Our imaginations are ever since strapped aboard a never-ending adventure to worlds and realities beyond our own – those of monsters and elves, of animated puppets and automatons, of aliens and space wars, of the Jurassic and the apocalyptic, and of damsels and cavalrymen destined to live happily ever after – whether through the lens of the century-old, grainy black-and-white or the surreal graphics and virtual reality of nowadays. Accustomed to bouncing from one visual spectacle to yet another surpassing act, our 21st-century eyeballs are wooable only by the wowables. We have no time for our civilisations’ been-there-done-that; so much so poetry is often frowned upon by the fast-paced cosmopolitans, as though it is as irrelevant as the practice of alchemy amidst modern-day science. Little wonder the personae of our surviving poets are worn beneath everyday uniforms like skintights of superheroes.
Surrounded by the epochal marvels of entertainment, the irony is, nevertheless, we feel bored. More so than ever. Every day we flick numbingly through doses of newsfeeds, preying on the next big thing, one greater wow we have yet to see, one new jab of sensational high. Like in addiction, our souls are paralysed by a strange sense of emptiness, in spite of all the world’s extravaganzas being digitally squashed into our pockets. Indeed, we are addicts – to a lifestyle. Our art and craft are compartmentalised into cultural pills and fast-food items, packaged for instant consumption. Consequently, we experience the aesthetic equivalent to culinary ineptitude: that is, the decay of our imagination.
Preoccupied with our sensual cravings, we ignore the hunger of our souls, whereby we worship the entertainment in the delivery but despise the essence of our arts. We mistake excitation for inspiration, attention for appreciation, and our expressions’ volume for their value: just as our fanatical cheers for a pre-teen on talent show who screams her lungs out in utter oblivion to the romance of her song – before someone younger and louder replaces her, of course.
Why are we bored? Because our yearning for beauty and self-expression is not satisfied; like most football fans, we have become spectators and commentators of our art and craft, not participants. With just enough turf for the most eloquent, expressive and pitch-perfect, our stadium reserves little tolerance for the average Johns and Janes like us. Put simply, we have created a world that isolates itself from our creativity.
Therefore, to make ourselves heard across such growing disparity, we scream louder. We use flashier expressions. We undress the intricate and shred the rational. We exaggerate emotions through vulgarity and bait our audience with obscenity. We reduce our existence into marketable sound bites and snippets, until we find ourselves like a caged parrot that has forgotten its own voice.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” said John Keating, Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
What is poetry? Some mishmash of rhymes, metres and forms? Some mummification of lexical fossils? Not really. Poetry is the largest book in the heart of the Bible, the foremost of the Chinese’s Five Classics, the beginning of all western literature. It is our experience with beauty and reflections on nature. It is the chronicles of our dreams and fears, our passion and pain. Poetry is the surrender of our vulnerability and the conquest of our courage. It is the call of our freedom, the song in our hearts, the dance of our imagination, the abstract of our existence. It is the romance of our humanity, the everlasting fire in our souls. Poetry is our voice.
To our unthinking, unfeeling, and very unhappy, society, shall we stop for a moment from searching with our open-eyed blindness? If we so diligently exercise our bodies to maintain physical health and improve our sports, shouldn’t we likewise take the time to condition our souls? If we vow ourselves to be better parents, friends, communicators, artists, writers, teachers, managers, leaders, clergy, politicians and presidents, I implore you: listen! Listen to your hearts, to your unvented passion, your forgotten dreams, your unsung songs and your silenced poetry. I assure you that the treasure you’ll find there is more remarkable than anything you have set your eyes on. And that, I believe, is the last wow our world will ever need: a self-aware and self-content social conscious, respectful to individuality, buoyant in goodness, appreciative of beauty, ready to inspire and edify.
Let’s bring back poetry!
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