The Foolishness of Poetry

It is fitting that National Poetry Month begins with April Fool’s Day. Poetry is, in fact, the most “foolish” of literary pursuits.

The FoolI live in a country founded by Puritans, immigrants, and pioneers. These groups hold in common practicality as a crucial value: the best work is useful work. In fact, this value took on mythic proportions over time, culminating in what is sometimes called the “Protestant work ethic.” But it is more than this. It is a mythos of practicality shared by many groups. Max Weber points out in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism that even in Japan, a nation that is not predominantly Protestant, the idea of working hard toward a practical, material end has become an intrinsic cultural value.

Faced with survival, individually and as a group, it only makes sense to channel one’s energy into material results. In Abraham Maslow’s model of hierarchic human needs, such groups function on the levels of physiology and safety, deriving their sense of love, belonging, and esteem from their contribution to the material needs of the group. In the case of many religions, morality and sense of higher purpose are also aligned with practical material work.

Poems are not edible, and one can not take shelter under a poem, unless we are speaking metaphorically. In Maslow’s model, poetry exclusively serves the need of self-actualization, which depends on other needs being met. Ironically, in a society that has struggled so long to build up each successive generation with greater capacity to fulfill the lower needs, self-actualizing behaviors often end up being seen as frivolous. We work so hard to maintain all the other cultural elements that ultimately enable self-actualizing behavior, and in focusing on the other needs so intently, often forget how to be creative, spontaneous, and solve problems of language and insight for the sheer pleasure of expressing the wondrous complexity of being human.

Poetry is the fool in King Lear’s court, pointing out where society has picked the wrong daughters to trust. We celebrate in Spring, when nature puts on its display of gratuitous beauty. Surely there are more practical ways to exchange pollen and ripen fruit. But the lilac and poppies and orange blossoms here in California are all saying: poetry, poetry, poetry.

Happy National Poetry Month, to all you hardworking “fools.”