Why Poetry Is Important

I digress with this post today. I was asked by long-time PSOV member, Betty Little, to give a quick talk on the topic of why poetry is important at an event she organized for this coming Saturday. Sadly, Betty passed last week. I would like to share the essay here as a tribute to Betty, who was a prolific poet and such a wonderful, wonderful person.

Why Poetry Is Important

When I was asked to give a brief talk on why poetry is important, I was very excited. I knew the exercise would make me sit down to reflect upon why I decided to immerse myself in the world of poetry after teaching in the classroom for 19 years. I knew it would help me remember and further understand what is at the root of this passion that I share with all of you readers, writers, and listeners of poetry.

The request was also a bit angst-producing. Jay Parini’s book, Why Poetry Matters speaks to why poetry is important in a much more broad, thorough and elegant way than I can. What can I say that he has not for the importance of poetry?

So, this became a personal as well as public task, just like writing a poem.

Why is poetry important?

Poetry makes order out of chaos. Growing up in a large family where chaos reigned, I turned to writing poetry at a young age, secretly filling up notebooks and journals. I believe I turned to writing and specifically to poetry because, as Gregory Orr states in his book Poetry As Survival, “…each of us needs a sense of order, a sense that some patterns or enduring principles are at work in our lives” (16). I don’t believe I was necessarily aware of the disorder in my childhood since, like most children, I thought that what I was experiencing was normal. In looking back, however, I can see how I was subconsciously seeking order, control, and predictability through the quiet moments I stole in my bedroom and with the silent pen moving under my command. Whether one writes with the overt structures of formal poetry, or the covert structures of free verse, we are creating order out the overwhelming world around us.

Which leads me to the second reason why poetry is important.

Poetry helps us make sense of the world. It is not enough for a poet to hear the news, witness an occurrence, take part in an event, or even feel the wind on her face. We want to understand the why and how and the significance of every aspect of life. Audre Lorde speaks to this in her essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” where she stresses that poetry is much, much more than form. She states, “I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight” (37). Poetry can distill the meaning of every aspect of life, the large topics, ideas, concepts, perplexities, and problems, it distills these down to their essence so that we can better understand and appreciate life, death, and why we’re here at all.

Poetry is important because people are storytellers. Stories of individuals are not only at the heart of literature, but at the heart of who we are. This has been confirmed time and time again throughout my life. In an interview that I read of the poet Joy Harjo, she said, “We are story gatherers… And each of us is in the midst of making a story, our own story. And as we make our own story we’re carrying forth the story of our family, our clan, our tribal people, and a larger time and space, so large we cannot comprehend it” (Harjo and Winder 104).  Often, the stories that poets tell are told after peering, as Jay Parini says, “into hidden places and speak[ing] for those who have no voice”  (178). In their poems, poets transform invisible worlds and make them visible.  They must speak, “search out patterns, scour the dark, in order to discover the chinks in time that reveal the light.” (171).

Which leads to the next reason why poetry is important and has been alluded to in the other reasons. Poetry is important because it shows the connectedness of all of us. While I have an individual voice, I am part of a collective voice. While my personal voice is drawn from my own experiences, beliefs, actions, and emotions, my collective voice is, “communal and which may be experienced as ‘plural’ within and without”  as Alicia Ostriker states in her book, Stealing the Language (11). Our individual voices can be of one story. Our individual stories show that “we are allies and portions of one another” (193). Poetry is important because we are in this life together.


Follow-Up To Breathing

Lost in the responsibilities of teaching middle school, starting a new business, and my new duties as PSOV President, I didn’t realize four weeks have passed since my last post. I thought it had been two. That’s what happens when you don’t “show up” every day. Another lesson learned.  But in these four weeks I’ve been thinking…

In the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to snowshoe in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado. After a couple hours of climbing at eleven thousand feet, a shift in perceptions occurs.

Follow-Up To Breathing

Into Arapaho
I begin the ascension
on snowshoes:

James Peak
and the daily grind vie
for time. Tracks

lead under the water
pipe six feet around,

no efficiency in water
falls. Clambering
to a higher ground,

all the outside
leaches in through
porous skin:

sun, wind,
caribou scat, a bobcat’s
print, a mountain

chickadee’s flash
and dee-dee-dee
slice my thoughts.

With every step
closer to the crown,
blood pushes, pounds

to escape: my shirt
thumps, a panicked
heart shatters

this solitude,
this silence
that I sought.

My heartbeat echoes,
scatters clouds
from electric indigo.

Sweat seeps, visions
creep in then clear.
I lumber through

a tunnel of pines;
snow ghosts leap
from dancing boughs,

waft down, swirl
around my body.
Is it there? Trudging,

I appear in open
skies; pines’ shadows
blanket untouched snow.

Rainbow clouds ring
the cascading face.
A hawk scolds

in a sun of gold;
my breath:
wood smoke.


Eco-poetry is a relatively new term in literature that distinguishes itself from “nature poetry.” In eco-poetry, we take on a more sophisticated and complex view of nature, one in which we recognize that we are not above nature or separate from nature. In eco-poetry we don’t romanticize nature, but recognize that we are responsible for our role in it.  Here is a minute and 48 second introduction:

“Eco-poetry,” really, has been around as long as poetry itself. Songs, philosophizing, and story-telling – that is, relating to the world through words – are a deep part of who we are on this planet. Haven’t our interactions with the stars and oceans, blizzards and each other been recorded in poetry since we were capable of doing so?

One of the great “eco-poets” and by that I mean “poets,” is Joy Harjo. Read her book, How We Became Human. You’ll understand.

One of the shifts occurring with “eco-poetry” is the analysis of how we use language in our relationship to the natural world. Walt Whitman and and Emily Dickinson certainly wrote about their place in nature, and did so with very different methods. What impact did their styles have on their viewpoints of the world, and what impact did their viewpoints of the world have on their styles?

In the above poem, “Follow-Up To Breathing,” the short haiku-like stanzas found themselves on my page after much experimentation with the line break.  After getting down the basic descriptions of my experience in Arapahoe, I turned to the line. I tend to create lines of 6 to 10 syllables that are generally iambic. This wasn’t working so I lengthened them, almost doubling the length, making it twice as bad!

The lines were way too long and wordy for what happened up on that mountain – it wasn’t an experience that was so premeditated; it was an experience that came in spurts. As I climbed higher in elevation, little things were beginning to happen to me, and I worked at remembering the sensual experience of it, all those sights, sounds, smells, particular to those hours on that trail that day.  Short spurts of stanzas that mirrored the short spurts of sensual experiences were the natural selection for this poem.

Side note: Two of the best books regarding nature and “eco-poetry,” in my opinion, are John Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home and Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth.  It took me a few starts to get through Elder’s book; in it he analyzes Frost’s “Directive” while traveling and exploring Vermont and reflecting on the link between past and present, nature and person, poetry and place. Only after attending a lecture by Paul Muldoon on Frost’s “Directive” was I able to go back and understand Reading the Mountains of Home. I have to admit though, I need all the help I can get when I comes to the analysis of anything.  As for The Song of the Earth, it is a book that I could read many times and get something more from it each time. Full of historical, cultural, and literary connections to ecology, the environment, and nature, the book provides a detailed overview of why poetry IS the song of the earth.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
What is Eco Poetry – a blog post from The Poetry Foundation
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry – an excellent anthology recommended by Tim Seibles
One of my go-to poems that tells me what a poem should/could be, from the above anthology: Down From the House of Magic, by Cyrus Cassells
Walt Whitman and the earth – A study of eco poetics
Conference on Ecopoetics, Berkeley – This just ended on Feb. 24, but is an annual conference held every February.
An Ecopoetry Anthology