"Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems. There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies -- in holiness and mirth. It is in honest hands-on labor also; I don't mean to indicate a preference for the scholarly life. And it is in the green world -- among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if one genuinely cares about trees. A mind that is alive and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision -- a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed."
Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994, p. 122)
I am, I regret, a sporadic writer of poetry. I feel the need for inspiration, and this statement is inspiring, the image of poems being "fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost." Do I really believe that? Sometimes I do. But I doubt that many people would have that opinion of poems. Poems don't do anything, they might say. They don't persuade, convey information, or tell a good and entertaining story. In addition, they befuddle most folks who aren't in the habit of reading poems, as their meaning is not always apparent. In truth, they have a point. Many poems have no staying power, no sound or image that resonates with us. A poet has their work cut out for them.
Here's a little poem that has no great big point to make, takes no cause, and does not attempt to persuade. What it so subtly does, and does well, is simply observe a person with a empathetic eye, and in so doing, it helps us be more human.
The town is much larger than you recall,
but you can still recognize the poor:
they vote to lose every chance they get, their faces
carry the tattoo of past embarrassments,
they are altogether too careful. This girl,
here in the print dress, pretending to shop
for an extravagance, the too slow way
her hand lingers between the colors along
the rack, her tentative hold on the clasp --
sure signs she knows she has no business here.
Soon enough she'll go home again with nothing
especially new in her hand, but no one
needs to rush things. The afternoon itself
is unhurried, and the lighted air outside
the store has lilacs in it. Her hand finds
a yellow dress. I think she should try it on.
Scott Cairns, in Odd Angles of Heaven: Contemporary Poetry By People of Faith)
Now that, as Oliver says, is "fire for the cold," cold human hearts that is. Reading that, I'm a little less cold. Yes, she should try on the yellow dress.