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.


Frost Line

November is gone and we’ve still only had a handful of cold nights. It’s rainy now, in the 50’s today, and I’m wondering when winter will settle in. If you’re more in the mood for photos rather than reading, there’s a link for some of my photographs of frost below.

Frost Line

I slide the rough door closed and turn
to see the barn’s black reflection,
its one story and tin roof, laying flat
on the ground, its outline zippering the grass
in half: shadow resting on white frost,
a stiff line against green and sparkling
blades shining in slanted November sun.
My own shadow hides in the barn.
Such a tidy split.
How long has it been since we last spoke,
when we tried to tell each other our own side
of it all, how we felt and why we couldn’t cross
the line each of us imagined? I still don’t
understand. I make a move and grass
crunches under my feet. It will be a cold
winter and soon the frost line won’t move
with the passing of the sun.

“Triggering” Ideas

In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo’s collection of lectures and essays written from his teaching experiences at the University of Montana in the 1970’s, Hugo discusses the triggering subject of a poem. What gets us to begin writing something down? How does this differ than other forms of writing? Take the news, for example, as Hugo does. He says, “Once you have the information, the words seem unimportant.”  But in a poem, the words are key, so much so that “the relation of the words to the subject must weaken and the relation of the words to the writer (you) must take on strength.” Hugo goes on to explain how the selection of words, the choosing and replacing of them with words that nearly mean the same thing but that shift the meaning just so can stretch the poem’s meaning and take you in new directions. He has the words leading the poem, leading us, to new places.

Regardless of what triggers you to jot down a few words, say it’s the sharp division that the frost delineates between the grass in the sun and the grass in the shade that you’ve come across, you have to think about it, mull it over, move away from it and return to it. What else does or can that idea trigger? Why has it appeared now? What does it mean?  I agree that you “must switch your allegiance from the triggering subject” as Hugo says, but not necessarily “to the words.” Not entirely. What you have to switch your allegiance to is ideas. Hugo was getting at ideas through the shifting of words.

On my first post, I explained that this blog’s title, “The Quality of Light” is taken from the first sentence of Lorde’s essay, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.” The sentence reads: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” If we read further into the essay, we find Lorde saying, “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.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Hugo was merely playing with words. He used the manipulation of words to get to the heart of matter, to the ideas behind words, and as he says in his essay that gives the book its title, “Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens” (15).

So there lies the reason we tend to use the same words over and over. It didn’t bother Hugo that he often used the same words in different poems. He used these words because this is what he was feeling. They were his words, his obsessions. What triggers us to write a poem can be anything. Our obsessions will find their way.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Richard Hugo and some poems
The Triggering Town – here is Hugo’s essay in its entirety
November Frost – some of my photos



Welcome to my site. The title, The Quality of Light, is the first four words of Audre Lorde’s essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” If you are  unfamiliar with the essay, I hope you will read it. Here is the first sentence to entice you a bit more: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

Although this blog is centered in poetry, I hope it appeals to many. In each posting you’ll find three things: an original poem of mine, a brief discussion of a poetic element, and links to further readings and viewings, be they poems, books, essays, events, or other.


We’re at the Nepalese Restaurant in Boulder
and this reminds my nephew’s mother of living
outside of Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple
of Nepal. In her memory she is walking
up the hill towards her apartment where she has views
of the temple, and while she is walking up hill,
she is carrying a bag of fruit. It will be four days
before she will descend for another bag of fruit.
She is walking up the hill and a wild rhesus monkey
jumps on her, hangs on to the front of her, bares its teeth,
screams in her face for the bag of fruit.
The monkey is large, and, if on the ground
it would be as tall as her waist, maybe taller,
but now it is on her chest, its hands clasped
on her shoulders, fangs inches from her own mouth.
Still she will not give up her fruit.
It was a long walk to get it and it will be four days
before she will go to the market again. So,
she begins to twirl, her hand clutching the fruit high in the air,
and she twirls, faster and faster, and from deep inside her,
a scream is released back into the monkey’s face.
There in Nepal in the street amidst shrines
is a woman with a monkey on her front
and they are twirling and screaming,
and twirling and screaming until the monkey
heaves a great sigh, jumps down, and scampers off.
And my nephew’s mother, the woman I am just
meeting for the first time, walks up the hill.


Line Breaks
A poem’s lines are one element that makes a poem a poem. Easy enough. But when dealing with a free-verse poem, when should you split the line? Do you complete a thought, a clause, and then continue to the next line? Do you dangle the idea and use that space to the right of the line to let the reader mull over the development of the scene/idea/feeling or to recover from a shocking/funny/sad lead-in? Or do you snap back to that left hand margin quickly after only a few words, rushing your way into the reader’s body? Of course, we do all of the above and which one we choose gives the poem its style and feel, its mojo.


[Check out what Ron Padgett, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove think of line breaks here: Breaking the Line, Breaking the Narrative…]

As any literary element, the line break doesn’t function independently. In the book, The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach states “The line is no arbitrary unit, no ruler, but a dynamic force that works in conjunction with other elements of the poem: the syntax of the sentences, the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the resonance of similar sounds” (43).  In creating our lines, we must pay attention to syntax, rhythm, syllables and sounds. By doing so, we create a beautiful symbiosis. But, if we’re not careful, a sense of haphazard randomness, of incompleteness is present. The point is to be deliberate about line breaks.

Often when I am writing short choppy things, I stumble across Whitman somewhere, perhaps a line of his printed in the paper, or I’ll come across a quote of his on a website, or I’ll be looking for another poet on my shelf and Leaves of Grass is looming over all other poets. And whenever I either deliberately or accidently read Whitman, I immediately exhale, long and slow. Those long lines don’t just remind me to slow down and be in the moment, they in fact cause me to slow down; you just can’t read Whitman’s lines quickly.
I’ve had a similar experience in trying to write “sijo,” a type of Korean poetry with longer lines than I tend to write. Here’s an example:

The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.

I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair

And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.

                                …U T’ak (1262-1342, author of this oldest surviving sijo)

Like most poets, I can spend hours, days, months, and years chopping up my lines and then stringing them all back together. I ask myself, “What will this sound like as a prose poem?” “What happens if I forget about compression and let the wind in and the divine out like Whitman? “What happens if I go all Robert Creeley and become as concise as possible?” Of course, radically revising lines creates new poems in and of themselves. And isn’t that the fun of it?

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc):

 “Two Monkeys by Brueghel” (poem based on Brueghel painting)
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
The Poet’s Forum, October 18-20, 2012, NYC