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Why Poetry?

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The following is an introduction to Jim’s two-volume collection of classic poems, available from Well-Trained Mind Press.

Heroes, Horses, and Harvest Moons: A Cornucopia of Best-Loved Poems, Vol. 1, and

Ten Thousand Stars: A Cornucopia of Best-Loved Poems, Vol. 2

This is a collection of wonderful words. Oh, not all of them would seem beautiful or important taken one at a time. But someone loved them enough to form them into poems.  So now they shine a light on the world and on its people; and to suddenly see, as if with newly opened eyes, what had become “every day” in our surroundings is one of the great gifts that poetry brings to a reader or listener. The English poet Percy Shelley said it this way:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.  

Why is it especially important to encounter poetry when we are young? Because children naturally love poetry and take to it, and it’s important to play to that love before the voices that claim to speak for the serious world of adults start tossing out such adjectives as “frivolous” or “not essential” in describing the arts – because those voices are as wrong as can be.  As Robin Williams’ character says, in the film Dead Poets Society,

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s ‘cute’.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion… Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.

Sir Walter Scott, poet and inventor of the historical novel, put it this way:

Teach your children poetry.  It opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.

Surely we could use more “grace” and “wisdom” in our world; but the Scottish lord also pinpointed something that is out of fashion today: “heroic virtues.”  In a world in which heroes and heroines are quickly besmirched and “cut down to size,” the world of poetry and story remains one place where we can still meet and appreciate heroes. And we need heroes to feed our spirits. As the Native American leader Tecumseh said,

When the legends die, the dreams end. There is no more greatness.

Of course, many poets focus on the small miracles around us, rather than working on an epic scale, and these poems are equally important, for they remind us to look for the wonders around and within us, every day. Let the American poet e.e. Cummings, word painter of nature and master of the love poem, say it:

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.  

So here I have collected poems, large and small, that sing. Not all will please you equally, or in the same ways, because you are the co-creator of each poem. Carl Sandburg, poet, singer, and Lincoln biographer wrote,

A poet explains… what for him is poetry by what he presents to us in his poems…There stands the work of the man, the woman, who wrought it. We go to it, read it, look at it, perhaps go back to it many a time, and it is for each of us what we make of it.

Here are some of the best poems I know.  Make of them all that you can.  I wish you much joy in the making.

Jim’s performances of these poems, along with brief introductions to each artist, are available as CDs or downloadable MP3s.

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