On the Value of Poetry: David Perez, Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County



you know people keep on saying to me I bet you're tired of people asking you what to Santa Clara County need with a poet laureate but in truth I'm not tired of that question because no one has asked it and you know when I speak to people who don't read poetry and it comes out that I'm the laureate they don't know how to react they can tell that it's a good thing and you know their eyes kind of bulge out and they smile and they start convulsing like oh wow poet laureate that's awesome what is that and they're so kind you know they don't ask so what they don't ask what's so important about poetry but I can tell they want to and in truth they should and I think I would be remiss in my duties if I did not try to answer the question even if it was never asked you know poets talk all the time about loving the word and we say things like oh I wouldn't be myself without writing or I couldn't live without it and when we talk about it we sound like we're talking about loving another human being but have you ever tried have you ever heard someone try to explain why they love someone think about it what do they do they usually end up just listing the person's good qualities oh I love them because they're smart they're funny they're charming they're exciting they're generous etc etc etc but those aren't the reasons let's be honest those are just the things about them that make loving them a pleasant experience for you those are all the things about them that you're glad you found out about them after you decided you were already into them so sort of the things about them they make you go like Oh phew and you know the truth is is that it's almost impossible to explain why you actually love something or someone and if you really love someone you have to ask do you even need an explanation you know you don't love someone or something because it's good for you because it's advantageous in some way it is its own point and poetry's a little bit like that too the problem is when you're into someone that your friends just aren't down with you know someone who behaves in ways that are kind of strange or they say things that not everyone seems to understand and then everyone around you wants to know why that person poetry is kind of like that too and so and so I think as laureate I'm asked to do something that's actually very counter to my inclination all right my inclination is to say poetry needs no explanation you don't need to you don't need me to tell you what's good about it right what you need to do is just experience it right read it write it you know take it home and spend the night with it but to most people the idea of spending the night with poetry just sounds like unsafe because you got to be careful these days you know where it's been you know you wanna you want to know about something before you commit to it and you know you want it to buy you dinner by the way hope you all enjoyed the free food the poetry provided for you so for the moment we'll practice safe poetry and I'll go ahead and I'll try to explain something that I think is valuable about it and in order to explain this I need to tell you a story and now this story was originally a version of it was originally told to me by the playwright Paula Vogel and she herself got some of the ideas from the theorist viktor shklovsky but the story should be familiar to you because it's yours so think about what you do every day you wake up to an alarm you go to the bathroom brush your teeth with the same brand of toothpaste take a shower go to the closet put on a different combination of basically the same clothes eat breakfast kiss someone goodbye get in the same car and drive the same route to the same job essentially every day of your life but let me ask you a question have you ever gotten to work walk in the door and you realize that you actually have no recollection of how you got there it's like it's is it is as if you just materialized at work and everything you did to get there is just like a haze to you it's just just automatic well of course the reason for that is that your morning routine is so routine that you have ceased to pay attention to it right all of those things that you do in the morning you you consider them so incidental and so everyday and boring that you just stopped perceiving them at all now I'm not saying that's a bad thing it would probably be very difficult for you to function if you you know if you stop to smell every stupid rose the problem is that this ability we have this little trick we can play of selectively ignoring things that we think we understand can go haywire and in if we're not careful we can ignore the person we kiss goodbye in addition to ignoring brushing the teeth you know we can ignore how nice of a day it is outside we can ignore our own capacity for reason you know we can stop thinking about how we arrived at our opinions and simply work off of our established conclusions without continuing to to understand how we arrived at them and more and more and more and little by little by little we can get to a point where we're actually not paying attention to most of our lives one of the best values of poetry is that it fixes that problem that's why we have it that's why we needed it that's why we created it right because we're we can ignore so much and poetry what it does is it forces you not to ignore things it forces you to see things right think about what a metaphor does right a metaphor does not make you a nicer person it gives you pleasure that's why we read poetry right that's why poets have a difficult time explaining what's good about it because the real answer is it feels good but the reason a good metaphor feels good is not because it's telling you something new it's because it's telling you something old in a new way it is describing something in the old boring humdrum outside world in a way that makes sense but that you haven't articulated to yourself before and it wakes you up it wakes you up to it again you know the the filmmakers Stan Brackett famously said something to the effect of to the child the grass is not green the child the grass is not green and I think what he meant by that was that when we name things we destroy them to me the grass is green I know it's grass I know it's green right so having names for them allows me to not see him to the child who doesn't know that we're grass who doesn't know the word green the lawn is a spectrum of texture and color poetry reintroduces us reintroduces us to these facts it reintroduces us to the vividness of our own experience so that we can simply be awake throughout our lives brings us back and as poet laureate it's partially my job to just say welcome back you

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