Mark Smith-Soto

North Carolina

I might start by saying that poetry matters to me by directing my attention to the heart, to the imagination, and to the spirit, rather than to the stomach, the calculator, and the pocketbook; in that sense, a poem can be seen as a kind of prayer, the thanksgiving kind that asks for nothing back. Certainly I have never imagined that my pocketbook would benefit by my dedication to poetry; poets have been poor from the beginning of time; they have lived in low garrets; they have pawned their winter coats to buy pens, paper, and ink and a log to throw on the fire.

But the fact that there is no money in it is not the worst thing about poetry: it may be one of the best things about poetry. You can profit immensely from poetry, in ways I’ll go into in a bit, but you certainly can’t make a profit from it. Unlike most things in this materialistic world of ours, the Muse is not for sale.

Like every poet I know, I write poetry because I can’t help myself, because I feel very much alive when I am writing, but above all because I have a sense that there are kindred spirits out there in the world who will listen to what I need to say, who may be moved to hear my words, and I yearn to speak to them and to be understood by them.

All of which is to say that I write poetry for the love of it.

And it may be said that I read poetry for the same reason. Love. I fell in love with poetry as a child, hearing my mother and my uncles in Costa Rica recite verses from their favorite poets just for the pleasure of sharing great words over the dinner table, or to make a point in an argument more powerful, or to share wisdom that had meant much to them in their lives. I didn’t understand everything or even most of what they were reciting, but I felt that I loved it all the same. I discovered very early on that I can love poetry just like I love some of my friends, without understanding them completely.

Love and poetry were made for each other: both are hard to talk about. Maybe that is why so many of the greatest poems ever written are about love. Come to think of it, couldn’t we easily ask the same questions about love that we are asking about poetry: How on earth does it matter? Isn’t it complicated, often confusing, often exasperating? There’s no money in it.

Well, I probably have come up with this love equals poetry idea just as a red herring, as a way of avoiding answering the thorny question at hand. I need to be rigorous with myself and try to come up with something more serious and concrete to offer you. So how about if I finish these short ruminations with a LIST. There is something awfully serious and concrete about a list, isn’t there? And if it seems as if I forget myself along the way and have begun to speak not about poetry, but about love—well, I hope I have already explained why that might be.

How Does Poetry Matter?

by gifting us with beauty that cannot be bought

by giving us, as writers and as readers, the joy of participating in something beautiful

by giving a home to the orphaned places in our hearts
by giving them a name

by coming to our lips when words fail us
by throwing a bridge between what we know
and what we understand

by helping us to discover our self in another
by bridging the silence between I and you
by helping us speak heart to heart

by daring us to feel
by elbowing our soul in the ribs when it has fallen asleep
by cracking open our hearts when they have turned to stone

by giving the mind a heart

by giving the heart a voice.