Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Poetry of Life

I don’t consider myself a poet, but maybe I should. After all, poetry is about the creative use of language to evoke images and emotions, and I try to do that, perhaps not as prettily as a poet, but with as much flavor as I can.

I think of beauty when I think of poetry – the integration of words into a pleasing and often unpredictable form – and I delight in its presentation even when I don’t quite understand it.

But isn’t that what life is too, the integration of molecules into pleasing and often unpredictable forms that we don’t always understand?

Everything we experience around us, animate or inanimate, produces an emotional reaction, bitter or pleasant. We see a spider and we react with fear, an evolutionary response to creatures that can harm us. We generally don’t think of those creatures as beautiful because our ancient ancestors survived by escaping deadly spiders and that healthy fear became wired into our DNA.

The same holds true for snakes. Both spiders and snakes had the potential to kill us for hundreds of millennia and both did so with stealth. We didn’t see them coming until they were upon us. Then they struck (because we unknowingly invaded their space) and we experienced a jolt of adrenaline.

Spiders and snakes are no more a threat than charging rhinos or lions. Yet we don’t instinctively fear lions and rhinos because our predecessors generally saw and heard them coming. They had time to prepare. Maybe only seconds, but still they had time. So the fear of those creatures never got hard-wired into us.

And yet if you look at a spider or snake under a microscope with enough magnification so that you no longer know you’re seeing a spider or snake and instead you’re just studying patterns and shapes, you likely will find those images pleasing.

My point is, we learn beauty. If spiders delivered excellent health to humans rather than toxins that can kill us, we would consider them beautiful. If snakes brought long life, we would worship them.

Moreover, what is ugly to us in one generation is sometimes considered pleasing in another. Think of rock-and-roll or rap with respect to your grandparents or great-grandparents. They wouldn’t consider those melodies music; they’d generally think of those songs as discordant noise.

We learn to take pleasure in certain experiences despite or perhaps because of our forebears. We rebel against them and create our own beauty. We decide for ourselves what is poetry and what is godawful caterwauling.

Not every person will like everything. Some folks can’t stand Beethoven’s music. Some find Shakespeare boring. I read poems and often ask myself what the hell the poets are talking about.

For example, when Michael Benedikt wrote, “The narcissist’s eye is blue, fringed with white and covered with tempting salad leaves,” [from his poem The Eye] I had no idea what he meant. It’s pleasing nonetheless to put those sounds together in my head.

So I try to at least understand the beauty in everything, even those things I personally find ugly. I don’t always succeed, of course. Some things I’ll just never get. But that’s okay. I’ll just seek elsewhere, find something else to amaze me. I’ll keep looking for new experiences upon which to build my castle in the air.

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