The antidote to campaign madness is poetry

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: In a grating political season of empty rhetoric, you should reach for the balm of clear, thoughtful, beautiful words: poetry
  • Parini: It's National Poetry Month and poems -- such as by Robert Frost -- can bring meaning to political rhetoric such as Donald Trump's call for a wall
  • He says poetry helps bind us to reality, mirrors our lives, explains our experiences

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His latest book is "New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015" The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)We are in the middle of a grating season of politics, the airwaves booming with empty rhetoric that often seems detached from reality. Wouldn't it feel good to change that channel?

Here's something: Poetry.
Take my word for this -- and then take some poets' words for this. Poetry can provide you with a sweet relief from angry, chaotic, ranting politicians. And you are in luck: April is National Poetry Month, a time when we pause to consider language at a deeper level, language that has been culled, gathered into meaning slowly and thoughtfully, framed in memorable ways.
    Poetry doesn't fade, as most news does. Indeed, as Ezra Pound once said, it is "literature, in general, is news that stays news."
    Jay Parini
    For 50 years or so, poetry has been a crucial part of my life -- a "still small voice" that calls to me in the night, that grounds my days in authentic speech. Poetry is, as W.H. Auden indeed once said, "memorable language," and it stays in the memory because it's been phrased in original ways, beautiful and precise.
    Poetry demands our attention because it's alive. "It has to be living," says Wallace Stevens in his great poem "Of Modern Poetry." "It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time." It's language "in the act of finding / What will suffice."
    People often say to me: "But aren't poets crazy?" I always reply: "Aren't we all?"
    In these insane times, we absorb the instabilities around us. Many of us visit shrinks, where we try to explain ourselves to ourselves, to get the stories of our lives "straight." And without language that adequately mirrors reality, we go nuts. We feel separated from what we experience.
    Poetry is, above anything else, a language adequate to our experience. It's a mirror, yes; but it's a mirror we can step through -- as in "Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll. One finds a deeper reality on the "other" side.
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    Among my favorite poets is Robert Frost, one of the great poets of the 20th century and, in many ways, our perpetual poet laureate. I often turn to his work as a touchstone in times of stress, and you should too -- especially now. He wrote with a luminous clarity about the demands of living in a world that has become, as he says, "a diminished thing."
    In "Mending Wall," he offers a key parable of our experience -- and one that provides an antidote to the political rhetoric about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as candidate Donald Trump has threatened, should he be elected.
    Frost did quote a famous old proverb: "Good fences make good neighbors." But it's in quotation marks, not a sentiment the poet has put forward as his own words.
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    In fact, Frost tells us from the outset there is something that "doesn't love a wall." It's something that "sends the frozen-ground-swell under" that wall to disrupt it -- and this something is frost -- or Frost, who positions himself as the "I" in this poem, a farmer who each spring summons his neighbor to "walk the line" between their properties in order to repair the wall.
    Frost acknowledges differences between himself and his neighbor: "He is all pine and I am apple orchard." This delicately strung metaphor plays through the poem, creating two kinds of people. One (the speaker) cultivates fruit trees. The other is "all pine."
    The speaker's neighbor is called an "old-stone savage." "Old-stone" recalls Stone Age types, so it's no compliment. In saying this, the narrator in the poem is not being nice. "He moves in darkness," he says of his antagonist, the one who repeats the folksy aphorism: "Good fences make good neighbors."
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    Frost's poem is nuanced, at once acknowledging the need to mark a line between properties and people; but there is also an impishness, a wish to tear down walls between people, between properties.
    The language in "Mending Wall" -- like much of Frost -- is buoyantly free, running like a clear and cold brook through the broken landscape of our culture.
    And it's to poetry like this that we go for a drink when we're really thirsty. As Frost writes at the end of "Directive," one of his later poems: "Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
    We should. Celebrate poetry this month, and in the months ahead, especially as the political season builds to nothing but noise. It's a place to go when the world seems "too much with us," as Wordsworth said, or too loud to bear, or too harshly simplistic, or without nuance and sympathy.
    As Mary Oliver wrote in "When Death Comes," "when it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."
    It's this openness to life that poetry engenders, and this is why poetry matters.