Published on April 17th, 2014 | by Timothy Thomas McNeely


Why Poetry Needs Tacoma

Every month has its evangelists, spreading the good news of that month’s theme. April is National Poetry Month, and even now advocates are distributing their literature on the merits of poetry. “Why do we need poetry?” or “What poetry means to me” or maybe “Poetry: You’re doing it wrong.”

Articles describing the virtues of poetry abound, like “Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools” by Elena Aguilar on the Edutopia blog, lists of poetry books for non-poetry readers, or extended quotes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” in which he famously declares poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” So, what?

What do you want from us, poetry? Acknowledgement? Accolades? Adherents? Sales? What the poetry industrial complex doesn’t want you to know is that poetry needs us as much as we need it.

What Does Poetry Want?

What poetry wants from us, in the most benign interpretation, is the same thing the tree in our garden wants: attention in the form of pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and for us to spread its seed – to propagate itself through our labors, like poor Johnny spread the gospel of apples far and wide. Poetry, like everything, wants to live, and it needs us to do that.

So what does that look like in practice? Why, for instance, does poetry need Tacoma? You may think poetry needs people, but it needs more than that – it needs a whole ecosystem to survive. Just as much as any individual talent or pool of readers, poetry takes a lot from its environment, and does best in a certain soil, a certain light.

Tacoma is a lower-middle class (working class), second-tier, semi-metropolitan, rural-adjacent town. What does poetry want with us? A lot, actually.

Place Makes Poetry

Poetry needs a place – a certain soil – to live. So many of the best poems and poets could not have existed without a very unique terroir. Though many different types of ground can grow grapes, there are some wines we prize specifically for their distinguished earthy origin, the attributes that set those wines apart as a product distinct from other wines.

Keeping with the wine metaphor, the Bordeaux or Sonoma of poetry could be Manhattan, London, New England as a whole, or San Francisco. Each place has produced giants, and consistently supports the development of niche markets – tours exist to show off the homes and haunts of poets in these places. But true wine (and poetry) connoisseurs are always looking for the ideal alignment of time, place, producer, and availability for that one special bottle (or poem), the uncommon varietal that demands attention. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Wine is bottled poetry.”

Whole movements of poetry can be ascribed to one specific place. For example, the Black Mountain Poets, from Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC, cohere as a school of poetry while encompassing poets ranging from Charles Olson to Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan to Denise Levertov.

Many individual voices in poetry are completely reliant on the influence of their locale. It’s silly to say, but Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” could not have existed without Chicago. Much of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, replete with bogs, farms, and Provisional IRA members, drew resonance and depth from the rich tilth of Northern Ireland and Dublin.  W. H. Auden couldn’t have written “September 1, 1939,” if he hadn’t lived in New York. George Mackay Brown wrote constantly of the Vikings and their descendants from his lonely isle of Orkney. Alice Oswald wrote an entire book, Dart, based on the river of that name that flowed past her home.

If you subscribe to anything like Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea of the genius and their muse, you can understand how poetry uses a person as much as a person uses poetry. If poetry wants to propagate – a prospect that requires genetic diversity – then it needs a diversity of place producing a diversity of poetry. Tacoma might just offer this.

Grit Grows Poetry

Not all soil needs to be rich to produce poetry. Poetry thrives in difficult environments. Though some forms of poetry take root and grow in obviously arable land, rich with patrons for poets, a rich reading community, and the like, most poetry likes a bit of adversity, either visited directly upon the poets or at least easily accessed by them. Adversity breeds resilience and strength. We’ve said that poetry wants diversity. It also wants superior stock, strong, drought-resistant, fertile.

Poetry’s a plant that likes a slightly rocky soil, or a virus that loves to mutate. It seeks dissimilarity, diversity, the people on the margins, the divergent view, etc. As much as poetry may seem like a thing for refined, upper-middle class white professors, the poetry they like challenges their own status quo and privilege. Poetry itself does best with the downtrodden and politically outre. As much as poetry might enjoy the stability of university grounds, it flourishes where it has to fight to survive. It’s only those in universities who talk about the death of poetry.

Many of the poets we value are misfits and malcontents in society at large. Some are nonconformists because they’re non-academics like Hayden Carruth, Wallace Stevens, or William Carlos Williams, to name some classic examples. Some use poetry to examine their experiences and challenge assumptions,  Sherman Alexie or Natalie Diaz, both Native Americans, or Kevin Young, an African American poet who wrote a book subtitled “On the Blackness of Blackness.” And firebrands like Alan Ginsberg or Levertov in her anti-war poetry make it clear that there is plenty to be malcontented about.

Poetry will take any barrier and make of that difficulty a virtue upon which it can feast and grow.

What Can We Do?

Poetry acts like sidewalk ants in spring: it wants to colonize your house. Poetry gets in through the gaps and makes a new home of our home. Either you can be prepared and take preventative measures, or poetry just might pop up where you least expect it and desire it. Beware.

You can play your part dissuading poetry: going with the grain, giving nothing of yourself to its demands; no interesting experiences, no insights, no distinguishing characteristics that might give rise to poetry.

Or, you can give it what it wants. Let poetry have its way with you. Let it steal your energy and precious bodily fluids. Read books, go to readings where poets read to you, write some poetry yourself. Maybe “whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing. / To the flashing water say: I am.” See what happens then, Tacoma. See what happens then.

For as much as Tacoma is perhaps less desirable than Federal Way for corporate offices, than Seattle for a duck boat ride, its virtues to poetry are evident. It has adversity ready to hand and grit galore. Tacoma could produce poetry that’s ambitious and voracious, poetry that wants to claim territory and develop something new. Poetry’s next victim could be you.

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About the Author

Most days, Timothy Thomas McNeely leads federal and state education program reviews for the State of Washington. Born in Tacoma, he studied poetry and philosophy in Canada and the United Kingdom. He is editor of the Community and Literature sections for Post Defiance, and writes poetry and prose whenever he can. He and his family live in Tacoma. Find him on Twitter as @ttmcneely.

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