Poetry has fallen on hard times. In the mere fifteen years since Barnes & Noble came to town, I’ve witnessed their poetry section dwindle from a 4’x10′ bookshelf (O, the glory!) to a few paltry shelves tuck away in a corner between the lit crit section and the potty-training books. This is truly unfortunate–not because I can never find the poetry I’m looking for at B&N–but because poetry is an essential aspect of good human living.
The fact that you scoffed at that last sentence confirms my first one: poetry has fallen on hard times. For all but the last few decades of human history, people relied on poetry to help them understand the world around them, to express their emotions and pains meaningfully, to mold the world into a shape that reveals God’s grace and glory. For millennia humans have understood that poetry is essential to being human. The unpoetic soul, they would say, is only half-formed, half-birthed.
Why You Should Read Poetry
This isn’t an elitist statement, though elitist snobs have often made it their own. Knowing poetry isn’t about being smarter or superior to anyone. It really is about being human. Poetry is vital to good human living, because poetry shows us what being human looks like. It does this in (at least) five ways:
- Poetry teaches you how to live. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert once quipped, “Read in order to live.” Literature, in general, helps us see the world more truly, and poetry specializes in shaping our responses to the world. Poems give us words and images that put a face on our emotions, that give our struggles a name. And having cast our griefs and dreams into a tangible, metaphorical form, poetry shows us what to do with them. Poetry shows us how to leverage generations of cultural wisdom and make it our own. As Mary Oliver (a prolific poet) explains,
“Poems speak of the mortal condition; in poems we muse (as we say) about the trgic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell–these too are in poems. Life, death; mystery, and meaning. Five hundred years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression, lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.”
- Poetry gives the imagination a workout. Imagination gets short shrift these days. In our hyper-rational, uber-scientific age, the imagination has been sentenced to solitary confinement and starvation rations. But it keeps trying to break out. Reading poetry is like baking a file into a cake to sneak it past the guard. Because poetry requires both imagination and reason, the more we read, the more we can reintegrate these two vital human faculties. In short, our loved ones will like being around us more.
- Poetry reveals the beauty of the ordinary. The whole point of poetry is to give us a new vision for things we take for granted. Though some poems deal with really serious themes, most poetry presents common human experiences. But as these experiences are reworked through the lines and imagery of a poem, what was ordinary becomes radiant, luminous. The result: greater gratitude and joy.
- Poetry slows you down. The very nature of poetry forces you to read slower and think carefully. Metaphors like taking their time as they speak their piece. Meter hates being forced to talk quickly. Nothing in a (decent) poem can be reduced to a mere tweet. The hasty reader misses out; the patient one is enlightened.
- Poetry tells you that you’re not alone. Your experiences are not unique to you. Though you’d punch anyone who told you so to your face, the trials you’re facing are common ones, even to poets. And chances are good that some poet has already vented her spleen or cried his grief or laughed herself silly in crisp language you can sink your teeth into. When you find a poem that makes you say, “Yes, that’s exactly it. That’s just what I feel,” then rejoice. The language we learn from such poems puts handles on our struggles, which changes them into tools for good living.
To help you start your journey into poetry–and to make my own a little more consistent–I’ll be posting one of my favorite poems every Friday, along with some commentary on the poem. I might even read it for you, so you can hear it speak through someone else’s voice.
These poems won’t be the usual stuff of college lit classes. Most of them have dirt under their fingernails and sweat stains on the collar. If you’re still not convinced that poetry helps us live better, check out these poems. They may just open up a new world to you.