The country of Finland, it can be argued, owes its identity to a poem. Finland was just emerging from its 600-year gestation as part of Sweden when scholar Elias Lönnrot published the Kalevala. This epic poem, a compilation of folk poems gathered from rural areas, did what no government process could have done: it gave Finland a vivid sense of its own unique culture and a pride in identity that helped carry the country through political challenges. And, it persists today. Finish schoolchildren regularly memorize the Kalevala.
Repeatedly, poetry has proved that it can stir—and bring people together. Words, images and rhythms that embody national (and international) ideals really do coalesce us, into something larger than ourselves. This is why Russians get tears in their eyes when they speak of Akhmatova; it’s why Chilean taxi drivers can recite Neruda from memory; and why Celtic bards and African praise-singers have such influence over presidents and kings. This is why poets, for centuries, struggled to write the American epic, knowing that without a founding document—a national poem—we would never have the organic sense of identity that the Gilgamesh-poet and the Mahābhārata-poet and Virgil and Homer and the Beowulf-poet endowed to their nations.
Now that we have entered the Age of Obama, it is worth wondering what role poetry might play in our national zeitgeist. The energetic discussion surrounding the inaugural poem demonstrated that, although U.S. poet laureates have so far shunned the traditionally central part of the job—composing poems for specific occasions—there is a growing hunger for poems that will help in the important process of self-reflection. How poetry might do this will be the subject of future posts.