It being Father’s Day, an occasion of ultimate manhood, and since several days ago, a student athlete at the university had the audacity to say—and to my face—that “poetry is just so much namby-pamby girly stuff” (even though he was good-naturedly trying to get a reaction out me)—I’d like to oblige him, here, with a reaction in the form of this column, which ran in these pages once years ago. This one’s for you, Marcus.
I’ll start with the admission that in high school I kept a secret journal. In it, I wrote random thoughts and even some poems, nearly every day. I kept the fake brown leather-covered notebook under my bed. I would never have dreamed of sharing it with anyone. You see, I was an athlete (a pretty darn good one), and I was supposed to assume the persona of a macho, physically robust chap. At least, that’s what I thought. I feared that my buddies and fellow teammates would not understand my more private, artistic concerns. I feared that I would be made fun of, viewed as less than manly. Of course, now I see how foolish that thinking was. If anything, I now truly believe that the man is more complete who possesses an inner life and a sense of aesthetic value. But I was a teenager, and peer approval meant everything.
Poetry spawns images of dark coffee houses, bongos, berets, people wearing black from head to toe. It is associated with self-absorbed, angst-filled pretentious souls and Hallmark cards. But poetry has been written since earliest times, the ancient Greeks and Sumerians sharing lyric poems orally around a fire. It was considered the highest form of human communication—indeed, according to the Greeks, something even the nonhuman gods jealously pined for from their lofty perches in the clouds.
Now, it seems that television and video games have nudged poetry from its once proud place. But poetry can strengthen the soul, like intellectual and emotional barbells. Poetry can educate and connect us to the mysteries of past cultures. Poetry can, as William Faulkner stated, “reveal the history of the human heart on the head of a pin.” It can do all these things in ways nothing else can. And I assert that poetry is a manly endeavor. No, I am not crazy. No, I have not absorbed too many blows to my head (although I like boxing). You heard me: Poetry is manly.
So, in closing, I would like to list for you the five manliest poets of the 20th Century. You can consider them evidence of my outrageous claim.
1. Wallace Stevens: He wrote some of our greatest poems while holding down a full-time job as an insurance executive (try that, if you think you are a man!). In his poems he wrestled with dense, philosophical ideas. He also once got into a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway (I do not condone violence, but this is a fact).
2. William Carlos Williams: He also wrote fine poems while holding down a full-time job—as a pediatrician (not squeamish about blood or the body at all). He preferred to focus on concrete things, images so real that you could bite them like coins (insert snarl here) to break your teeth.
3. Carl Sandburg: He made famous the most manly city in the U.S.A. Yup, Chicago. He called it “city of the big shoulders” and “hog butcher of the world.” Macho stuff. He also won three Pulitzer Prizes and could crush a beer can with one hand.
4. Langston Hughes: He bravely confronted racism and stared it in the eye—in poems, as well as stories and articles. He channeled his anger into beautiful, fierce poetry, a lesson to any man about how to deal with rage. He also was a track star in high school with amazing thighs.
5. Robert Frost: He dealt bravely with the tragic deaths of various family members, keeping his clan together. Indeed, his favorite subjects were isolation and despair, and not the more commonly thought small town Americana themes of home and hearth. By the way, when not breaking his back in the fields as a farmer, he won four Pulitzer Prizes.
So, there they are, friends. And if you know of a young man who questions poetry’s value and its deserved place in the universe of manly things (like my pal at the university— that’s right—you, Marcus), please pass this column on to him. Be a man. Read (or write) a poem.
Address correspondence and poetry submissions to: email@example.com or Neil Carpathios, Dept. of English & Humanities, Shawnee State University, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).