Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why Poetry

Why Poetry?

It’s a question that every poet who has ever been interviewed has been asked and a question that I ask my own writing students every semester. But it may really be two questions. The reasons, after all, for reading poetry can be quite different than the reasons for writing it. And the simple truth is, as with most things people do, the reasons for doing it vary greatly from person to person.
Nevertheless, in the interest of conversation and perhaps furthering understanding, it’s always worth attempting an answer. So, over the years my students’ answers as to why they write poetry have included all of the following:
• to express oneself
• to release emotions (achieve catharsis)
• for fun
• for intellectual stimulation
• for entertainment
• to leave one’s mark
• to make a difference
• out of a love of language
• for the greater glory of God
• because I have to.
All of these are pretty good and fairly common reasons for writing poetry. Interestingly, they are also good reasons for reading poetry.
I’m not sure anyone’s answer to the question ever varies a great deal from this list, but as they continue their pursuit of either writing or reading poetry, poetry lovers often refine these answers into ones that are clearer and more precise. Renowned contemporary author and teacher, Camille Paglia, for example, claims that writing poetry helps us “cast off habit and look at life again with childlike wonder.” Similarly, poet Jay Parini states, “the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives.” While Paglia’s claim has to do with writing and Parini’s with reading poetry, it is noteworthy that they both emphasize the transformative element of being involved with poetry.
Ultimately, what I think both of these commentators are saying is that being involved with poetry helps us notice things we might otherwise take for granted. The essential vehicle of poetry is metaphor, the conception of one thing in terms of another. Thinking in this way helps us see connections and relationships that are not obvious in our daily activities. In seeing these surprisingly intimate connections we are also more likely to take less for granted, to more highly value a wider and perhaps deeper range of the things and people around us.
Poet Edwin Honig states most clearly the importance of poetry today when he says, “In our age, and typically in a large, mobile industrial society . . . people tend to become indifferent about their ability to think or feel for themselves . . . .The poet’s voice is needed now more than ever before --that voice which celebrates the difficult, joyous, imaginative process by which the individual discovers and enacts selfhood.” Although Honig wrote this about why we read poetry, it speaks most closely to my own concept of why I write poetry. In a sense, I think I perceive the world poetically--as brief, valuable narratives, images, or thoughts deeply embedded with personal, historical or literary associations and connections. I admit I lack the omniscience to see the big picture, but through poetry (reading or writing) I remember to appreciate the little ones and learn to better perceive the webwork that ties them all together.
So maybe it’s really just one question after all.


  1. you always manage to so eloquently speak about writing, your own and others.

    i find myself stumbling when people ask me why i write poetry. i used to answer i wrote because i had to. i once wrote a poem that said "i write to free myself from myself."

    but, there is more than that. now that i have worked through a lot of my life, so to speak, in my writing (that emotional catharsis) i now find that i would to tackle other social, religions, gender etc issues that i view in the world around me. i don't want to drill an opinion into someone but i would like people to read my poetry (and the work of others) and really think about how they see the world around them.


    if any of that made any sense!

  2. Thanks, Jessie. And every bit of it made sense, although from what you said, I think you should still answer "because I have to."

  3. Yes, writing poetry can be cathartic, but it can also be used to heal others. I write poetry because I love to play with language and have a goal of creating images so clear they give people hope. I think being a poet is more important than being a preacher these days.

  4. Great post. I don't know why I write poetry, so I tend to avoid the question altogether. It's just something I've always done, I guess. My mother does, my great-uncle did, my cousin does, my mother's grandmother did, and I even have a folder of copies of poems written by my great-great-great grandmother on the other side. Only my mother's grandmother's were ever collected and published for a small group of people. Funny thing is, I never knew about all of them until after I was writing. Could poetry be genetic?

  5. Good question gypsyjonga. I think it is definitely in the genes. Nice post.

    Actually why do people write at all?