A friend of mine shared the following excerpt from A.R. Ammons's poem The Ridge Farm on Facebook recently:
Because of the repetitions of the words "worth" and "doing" I had to read it a couple of times, slowly, to parse it correctly. Was that worth doing? Is poetry worth doing? Is reading poetry worth doing?
I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with poetry my whole life. Back in high school I thought the analysis we put poems through was tedious. Yeah, yeah, there's subtle meaning in there, but maybe the poet wasn't trying to build all those layers (said the 16-year-old me, dozing in the back row). And even now, if a poet uses obscure language and overly complicated syntax I turn off. This probably explains why I prefer poets such as Mary Oliver, who focus on nature and the quotidian.
I've written poems since high school. I've only ever had one published, but I don't think that's really the point for me. I like to use forms that have rules attached--haiku, tanka, sestina, villanelle. I'm a mathematician, which means I like patterns and structure. I also think limitations (like the 5-7-5 and 5-7-5-7-7 syllable rules for haiku and tanka) force you to be creative with word choices, and that can make the end result more evocative.
Which brings me back to the bigger question--is any of this worth doing? Our country is by nature a bit anti-intellectual, so poetry, literature, and art often take a beating in public discourse. The focus in education (both K-12 and higher ed) these days is on STEM, and various governors, including those in my current and home states, spend time deriding the humanities and social sciences as topics unworthy of public support. The National Science Foundation is no longer allowed to fund projects in political science. At various times in my life, members of Congress have sought to eliminate funding for public television, public radio, the National Endowment for the Humanities, etc. I vividly remember Jesse Helms's anti-Robert Mapplethorpe crusade. This is not new and it will never stop, but it's depressing nevertheless.
If you stop and really think about it, there is not much in life that is "worth doing." Ours is the only species on the planet that attaches value judgments to our activities. All the other animals are just trying to live; that means food, shelter, procreation. So the question is, beyond those basic activities is anything worth doing? Things that help others survive or live better lives? Surely. That means things like curing diseases, aiding the sick, feeding the hungry, etc.
But what about things that nourish the soul? Strictly speaking they're not necessary and we often put these in the category of "not worth doing." Music, art, literature, craft. If you really put it to politicians this way, they won't deny that of course these things make the world a better place but they'll come up with mealymouthed excuses about priorities and how people who want to engage in such activities should do it for the love of it. They will argue that such activities should certainly not receive support from the government because they won't lead to cancer cures or better technology, because that's all that "matters."
Do I have a point? I don't know. I think it comes down to this: just as it is true that everyone is special and no one is, so it is true that everything is worth doing and nothing is. Maybe it's time to stop labeling everything and just get on with life.