Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Poetry? And What Is Its Role in Our Contemporary Culture?

My friend, Maril Crabtree (a poet herself), is giving a presentation to a regional group of librarians and had asked a few of us for our thoughts on these questions:
Why do you (and others) write poetry?
Why do you (and others) read poetry?
What is poetry's place in contemporary society?
How can libraries promote poetry?

Good questions all. Here are my answers.

Why do I read and write poetry? Because it takes me places I would never otherwise go. I love to enter the imaginative play of a poem, whether reading or writing it, and find out to what unexpected places it will take me. Even or especially when writing a poem, I’m heading off on a journey whose end I can’t see. This is, of course, not what many readers or non-readers of poetry expect or want to hear. They want to think that I had it all plotted out, an interior rhyme 3 lines in, alliteration in lines 5, 7, 11, etc. Of course, I don’t. A poem written that way might be an interesting exercise to try and might even turn out well, much as poems do when the poet uses a traditional form such as a sonnet, which dictate certain rhymes and rhythms on certain arbitrary lines, but the best poems, certainly the best free verse poems, rise organically from the initial idea and the choices the poet makes along the way as s/he develops the idea and all the thoughts that cluster around it and its children, picking and choosing among them with each choice leading to many other choices. I try to explain it to young children by telling them it’s like one of the “choose-your-own-adventure” books or games. Each choice you make takes you down a different road and leads to different choices. That’s why there can be so many excellent but different poems on a topic such as love or birds.

The reader does best if s/he also views each poem as an adventure, wondering where it will take him. Each poem should be approached on its own. Some may be like a walk through the park, pleasant but not thrilling. Some may be like a trek through what s/he knows is familiar ground, but in the night with fog camouflaging everything and making it strange and even scary. Some may be like fighting through an unmapped jungle, sweating, tripping, stumbling, only to finally break through into a clearing that is unearthly in its beauty and total improbability. And these are only three of the multitude of possible adventures the poem can become. But like all adventures, any good poem leaves the reader changed at the end of it, even if others cannot see this in any way. Inside, the reader is a slightly different person for having gone on that adventure and can never quite be the same person who started out on it.

The role of poetry in contemporary society is what it has always been. The first poets were priest(esse)s, and the first poetry was intended to show the way back to the harmony with the natural world and the divine that humans inevitably wander from, to show the ways we have fallen from this wholeness and to show the ways in which we can regain at least a small measure of it. This is what poetry is for. You will tell me that quite a lot of poetry fails at this, and I will nod and say that it always has. What survives from ancient times are the best of works, but I am certain from my own studies of times past that there were more that were almost great or merely good or even quite poor in quality. As Donald Hall says in his famous essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry,” “…you must acknowledge that most poetry is terrible--that most poetry of any moment is terrible.”

As to how libraries can promote poetry, one key way is to buy it and make it available to patrons. It is constantly disturbing to me to go to public libraries and look for books of poetry by acknowledged masters of the art, not highly regarded contemporaries with one or more awards but poets who are anthologized and taught in textbooks, only to find that the library either never had that book or got rid of it during some purge or other and too often to find the books of one of these acknowledged masters at a Friends of the Library sale for pennies when the book cannot be found on the shelves in that library. To be fair, I will point out that this is also a problem with bookstores, but that makes the library’s role even more vital. So the first way libraries can promote poetry is to stock it on their shelves.

Another way would be to review poetry books in the library’s newsletter, blog, website, or other format. More poetry books than ever are published today, but vastly fewer are reviewed. How can the person who wants to learn about poetry but feels unsure of his or her ability to judge it sift through all the titles or even learn of them? A library with a regular poetry review column in some form would be doing this reader a great service. Or a regular article by poets and/or critics that would lead the reader through a deep consideration and discussion of one poem—this would be a great aid also. The schools often have no idea how to teach students how to read a poem, and many people who are drawn to poetry are afraid of it because they don’t know how to read it. All they know is that it takes a different kind of reading skill than a mystery or magazine article and they don’t have it. As Walt Whitman said, “Great poetry needs great audiences…” and knowledgeable readers


  1. My thanks to you, Linda, for this valuable, clear, helpful learning you've provided. I want to send it off to poet-friends, library folk, and all of the parents and children of the world!! I'll make a small start, each time sending your message to my mind and heart as I let it go to others'. Blessings, Judy [Prince]

  2. Judy, you're a sweetheart. I'd love to see librarians, teachers and parent work with children and young adults on how to approach and appreciate poetry, though. Aside from what it does for poets, I think it would make our world better in the long run.