Poetry doesn’t matter to most people. American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Art for art’s sake, but on a microscopic level. But while it may not seem to have relevance to businesses people, politicians, designers, etc., the fact is that we can learn volumes from poetry.
In the early 1940s, Abraham Maslow constructed a hierarchy of basic needs. It is the famous description of what human beings require from a bio-psychological standpoint and a concept we learn starting in high school. Regardless of the epistemological debates about the scheme, it still serves to illustrate a point. Above all else, Maslow contended that we need to be safe. When you’re out of danger you can think about food and water, and when you have those things you can think about shelter, and once you have that you can turn to your psychological and emotional needs. When you’re safe, fed, out of the weather and loved you can turn your attention to a more complex human need to create.
When you have a pressing need to get warm while trapped in a blizzard you probably aren’t thinking about a poem or a story you might read, write or recite. But it also seems clear that there’s a certain middle class perspective inherent in Dr. Maslow’s scheme. For most of the world, the kind of stable conditions he believed were necessary for human beings to be free to invest their energies in creative work simply do not exist. Safety can be overridden by culture or the practical realities of meeting Maslow’s need system aren’t present. But we are social beings that are defined by our collective interactions and ability to communicate. Language defines us as much as biology. What this suggests is that art, including poetry, goes on, no matter what, as long as people are breathing and speaking. Arguably, you may need poetry more when it is impossible to meet other basic needs, when you are uncertain of what the next day will bring but are sure that your companions are present now to give comfort.
“Giving form to the moment in which he found himself”—is that a description of a human need as fundamental as the other ones on Dr. Maslow’s list? One of the functions of language is to give voice to subjectivity so that it can be shared, to bring us out of the isolation of silence and onto common ground. The truth is that language often fails to do this well. When a business person says, “we need to leverage this opportunity,” we get very little information about just what that means: what do we mean by “leverage,” what does it have to do with the person your selling something to, why does creating a new design or technological innovation matter? We take it on faith that it’s true because we are here to make things and sell them. We trust that the statement points to something real. To speak is an incomparable act of faith.
The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience. It is distilled thought, the refinement or language into artistic meaning. Such enchanted language could magically dissolve the barrier of skin and bone and separateness between us and render perception so evocatively that we don’t just know what it means, we feel what it means. That is why most entrepreneurs begin a business, that is what defines a brand, not a list of attributes.
It is about individual voices learning to speak on our own terms in such a way that we create deep meaning. The other side is that we need to be able to listen. People who read imagine the lives of others, they come to internalize something more cosmic than themselves, their business, their things. Literature makes other people more real to us by creating a narrative into which we can place ourselves. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality. Poetry can’t help but suggest that the subjectivity of others is real and valuable.
Poetry’s work is to make people real to us through the agency of the voice. When people are real to you, you don’t simply make things and try to sell them for the sake of the bottom line. We create, market, innovate and design with human purpose. Hence the rise in “craft” products. In the age of the collective of mass culture and mass marketing, there’s hope in that.