Can poetry heal? Michael Castro believes so. He’s using his appointment as the first-ever poet laureate of St. Louis to help bring comfort to an area still reeling from the August 2014 shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson.
“The appointment came with a thinly veiled challenge: How can poetry and the arts play a prominent role in healing efforts being initiated on multiple fronts in the St. Louis area?” says Castro, who has published 10 collections of poetry during his four-decade-long career as a writer and professor. A resident of St. Louis since 1967, he taught one of the nation’s first courses in Native American literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the late 1970s and later taught at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. In 1975, he founded the acclaimed literary journal River Styx.
At UB in the 1960s, Castro learned from such greats as John Barth and Robert Creeley. “Barth emphasized keeping alert to fresh approaches that renew literary forms. Creeley, in both his poetry and speech, conveyed the importance of not being satisfied with anything but precisely the right word,” says Castro, who began his two-year term as poet laureate on Jan. 1.
1. It builds community
As poet laureate, I initiated a Unity Community reading series, bringing together poets and audiences of different ages, races and ethnicities to foster communication and solidarity.
2. It connects us with our higher self
“Myself” is different than “my Self.” We have a higher Self. Poets try to write from it and connect with others there.
3. It reveals our common humanity
Poetry reflects human sufferings, joys, aspirations, dreams and the truths of our inner and outer lives. There is an “and yet, and yet” experience in a great poem—hinting at the ineffable dimension of awe, mystery and spirit behind all realities and at the center of our individual beings.
4. It allows us to become one with the other
Reading or listening to a poem intently takes us outside our own mental boundaries to unite sympathetically with the consciousness of another.
5. It provides a momentary escape from our everyday lives
Poetry takes us outside of time, to experience what William Blake referred to as “eternity in an hour”—or it could be just a few moments. I think of these transcendent journeys as a kind of refreshing immersion in paradise.