I have a couple confessions to make.
First, I am biased toward poetry, not because I believe it is inherently better than other art forms (like novel writing), but because poetry is largely misunderstood. People interrogate poetry to gauge its worth, asking questions such as, what is the point, why are we reading this, and why do people even write this?
Second, this article, at heart, addresses the qualities we find delightful or relatable in a poem. This does not mean that everyone must enjoy poetry or identify with its contents. I’m only saying that any member of humankind can derive pleasure and applicable meaning from poetry.
This is because poetry, by nature, is a vehicle for storytelling. The tradition of storytelling goes back to time immemorial when stories were predominately shared by word of mouth, to preserve memories of past generations. Even today, we are all living and telling stories day in and day out. That’s the way life unfolds, so to speak. But why are these stories worth telling? Why are poems worth writing in the first place? This line of questioning is all the more important for Christ followers, because it links directly with what we believe in and Whom we live for.
I want to surface three primary reasons why poetry is valuable as an art form. Poetry helps readers and writers (1) pause, (2) reflect honestly on their personal experiences, and (3) see others clearly. All these reasons manifest the One who stepped in human shoes for our sake and has been writing our stories from the beginning.
1. Poetry Makes Us Pause
In this chaotic world, it’s often challenging to take a breather and unburden your mind. Poetry, in its concentrated form, allows readers to channel a creative and interpretive perspective of the world that too easily goes unused in favor of one driven by routines and predispositions. Although routines are not destructive or “bad,” being human is much more than the grooves we run in, and life is about balance. Poetry contributes toward achieving this balance.
William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” is a fine example. The concept of this poem is simple, and on the surface it appears almost pointless. Almost.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
You can glean several odd and interesting things from this short poem. However, note the lack of punctuation. Many people object to this style because it overtly disregards grammatical conventions. Yet this nonconformity fulfills our need to hit the pause button and realize that the structures we’re accustomed to aren’t always obligatory. Obviously, we are free to express ourselves within reason (for the sake of readability if you plan to share the piece with others). But the fact remains that achieving balance sometimes requires us to step out of the boxes we live in. And when we do, the results are worth the adjustment.
Pick up a Shakespeare play or a book of E. E. Cummings’ poetry, and you will sense that nonconformity is far more than the rebellious trend it’s portrayed to be. We cannot learn more about the world—and ourselves—if we stick with our preconceptions of what others deem acceptable. Shakespeare is heavily canonized in literature, yet he managed to break rules as an artist; that should tell you something.
2. Poetry Promotes Honesty
Thinking outside the box is beneficial in another way, because we soon learn to be more and more honest with ourselves. Revisit the example above. The raw honesty with which William Carlos Williams admits his transgression is staggering when you dwell on it. So simple, and so human. Poetry compels us to authentically contemplate our own lives, whether yesterday, today, or tomorrow. It gives us the freedom to be open about our needs, struggles, joys, and sorrows. “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks expresses this notion poignantly.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The defiant yet rueful tone of this poem jabs at you with its short, pointed syllables. Additionally, the repetition of the plural pronoun “we” conveys the idea that reader and writer are jointly implicated in the struggles of life. This candid communication between writer and reader, in turn, teaches the reader to be more honest with himself and his community (workplace, family, church). You would be hard pressed to find a poem that does not accomplish this oftentimes fearful transparency. While prose does a fantastic job of setting us in another’s shoes, poetry helps us settle deeper into our own.
3. Poetry Fosters Empathy
The state of being more present and honest with oneself is a two-edged sword. Poetry teaches us about ourselves and our emotions but must, by necessity, also teach us about others.
Movies and novels have the same effect. We experience other people’s experiences through various media in this world of new literacies. But if one art form is discounted for mimicking other art forms in an inferior fashion, who is to say that all art isn’t equally at fault? Why write songs that speak to our hearts? Why create art at all?
While we are on the topic of music, poetry is a not-so-distant relative. Poems are lyrical by nature and translate well into musical composition. But they also serve to express personal preference, wisdom, and foolishness. And just as music is a social art, so is poetry; our environments, experiences, interactions, and emotions form the fodder that poets use to craft their art. Poems, most of all, are worth reading and writing because they teach us not only to see ourselves in others but also to see others for who they are.
Elizabeth Bishop illustrates this well in her poem “The Fish.” Since it is a much longer poem than the two examples mentioned above, I will include a small excerpt here.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
What does Bishop see in this fish her narrator has caught? Someone who is very different from her, but in whom exists echoes of her own experience. She relays her observations with curiosity and admiration rather than judgmental language. Beauty and power abound in seeing another individual as intrinsically distinct from oneself. There is more to creation than meets one’s eye, and more to loving than one’s familiar affections.
Poetry is wonderfully humbling.
God placed this wonderment in each of our stories when He came down in the flesh, and even when He created us. He looked us in the eye and assured us that no matter the bumps and bruises, the miscommunication and the mysteries, our stories are worth telling. I am convinced that this can be extrapolated to poetry as well. We all have confessions to make, some silently, some out loud. But I hope that poetry’s ability to cultivate respite, reflection, and love will demonstrate that these confessions are worthy of consideration.
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.