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Defining Existence with Existential Poetry

Sounds tough, right? In defining our own existence, there is this need to pinpoint what our existence is. It's broad and clunky, not likely to be easily pinned down, much like chasing after your own shadow.

If it seems a bit too much, it's most likely because it is. How many people do you know are a) concerned with existence, and b) ready to place human beings, people, family, or themselves on a scale that discusses their place, both negative and positive in the world.

Existentialism as a movement is quite big. Maybe you remember reading T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' at school? Eliot's work was a great look at what human's would be if they continued to war with each other. Existentialism started in the 20th century, emphasizing individual freedom and choice. It's a method to explore the human condition, and the meaning of life. Existential poetry is a product of this movement, and it is characterized by themes of isolation, alienation, freedom, and choice.

Existential poets often question the meaning of life, and the purpose of existence. They're known to examine the relationship between the individual and the world, and how humans are affected by their environment. There are two existential poems I wanted to introduce to you today: 'What the Living Do' by Marie Howe and 'I Was Told the Sunlight Was a Cure' by Hanif Abdurraqib.

First of all, I quite liked the structure of these poems. The long lines and thickness of the pieces were really what I was looking for (for myself) in terms of formatting an existential poem. It just looks more like the writer had an outpouring of thoughts contemplating life, rather than focusing on stanzas, syllables, rhyme, meter, etc.. This might vary for you, but for me, existential poetry should be more about what is said rather than the careful structuring of it, if that makes sense. These writers 100% did structure their poems and put thought into formatting, but I like that the longer lines make it feel less worked over. There's a freedom in it's untethered movement. Howe's poem was much more uplifting than I had expected an existential poem to be. It ends on this enamoration for oneself, for being a living person. Then that final line "I remember you" leaving us, the reader, with the idea that being a living person means being able to remember perhaps the "Johnny" mentioned at the beginning of the work. Existential poetry is typically known for its darker themes and motifs, dealing with subjects such as isolation, loneliness, and the struggle for identity. It also explores the emotions that come with these themes, such as despair, anxiety, and hopelessness.

Howe shows us that an existential poem can be a bit brighter and life can potentially be more positive than we are sometimes willing to admit. Abdurraqib's work is my favorite this week. I love word play, the seven stanzas that devolve into those five two line bits, ending on a final thought provoking line that ties together the bird, the wind, the seasons, the music, all together. This is truly what I would consider a 100% finished poem. Again, the existential piece is not negative, not truly, in that it seems to end with the speaker stating that the sound of the world is sweet, not the ending of it.

Existential poetry has had a significant impact on society, not just in the literary world, but also in pop culture. Many movies, TV shows, and songs have been influenced by existentialism (I'm looking at you Severance).

It's often in therapy as well, as a tool for self-reflection and self-exploration, helping individuals to understand their own emotions and thoughts.

With all this in mind, I decided to look at the titles, 'What the Living Do' and 'I Was Told the Sunlight Was a Cure,' and see what I might think about life, people, our effect on the world, and more personally about what I do, what I might have been told. I wanted to ask myself: What are the themes that resonate with you? What are the questions that you want to ask? I found myself really looking at themes closely aligned with global warming, plastic waste, humans effect on the environment, overpopulation, etc.. Questions I found myself asking included: Why do we need more people? Why is society in America geared to keeping the poor, poor but also forcing them to be uneducated in terms of birth control? What to cycles of poverty do for those in power? Is religion weaponized as a way to keep the lower classes down?

There's also the possibility of writing responses to these works as well in the form of 'After' poems, which respond to an original work.

For example "What the Dead Do" is a possible title for a poem responding to "What the Living Do."

Existential poetry is a powerful tool for exploring the human condition, and finding meaning in a world that can seem meaningless. Hopefully this post helps you explore your inner thoughts on these matters! Best of luck, Mea

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