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.


Running Blind

I am a dreamer. I dream all the time (both while awake, so it seems, and asleep). My sleep dreams are vivid, in color, and I have observed a couple of things about dreaming that I haven’t scientifically proven but believe are true. The first is that the fewer creative outlets I have while awake the more I dream.  The second is I have more dreams when I sleep on the left side of my head as opposed to the right side.

Here is a dream-like photograph I took of a window in my house. I took it while I was supposed to be writing. You can click on it to see it better.

Books by the Window

Sometimes I wake myself up from laughing really hard in a dream.  These dreams are rarely funny when you tell them to someone, but one I think is funny to hear is one that my daughter had. One night she sat up in her sleep at 3:00 a.m. and said to her sister, “Want to know another funny thing about a hot dog?” Then, after asking, “Am I making sense?” she lay back down and resumed sleeping in silence.

I pay attention to my dreams and journal them and interpret them and look up the symbolism of certain things: colors, places, animals, that sort of thing. I have many recurring dreams that usually have to do with not being in control: being in cars or other modes of transportation with no one in the driver’s seat, flying without the aid of anything, or sometimes inside a contraption like an elevator as Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator or in a ship that’s left the water and that I now have to quickly learn to steer high above the ocean. I also have recurring dreams that involve the houses of my childhood – I moved 11 times by the time I was 14. Perhaps that’s why I have to be dragged out if my husband wants to see a movie. I usually just want to stay home and dream. You will see a couple of other recurring themes in today’s poem.

Running Blind

Last night I dreamed first in words,
great passages that flashed before me,
too far away to read, but how I strained
to size up, take in those paragraphs,

floating by and blurry
with thick black letters all in CAPS
that began each section, not unlike
some movies we all have seen,

but with messages more urgent,
more important. They broke
apart and floated into space
beyond my grasp. Later, as before

in dreams, I was completely
blind, unable to open my eyes
at all although I was fast awake
in my dream, and tried prying

my eyelids open with markless
fingertips. Even with my eyelids
sealed, I insisted in walking around
carrying my computer and books,

evidence I had once seen. Somehow
I knew the desert stretched far ahead
of me, empty except a finish line
in the distance. I’d just learned

how to run forward in my dreams
and took off, sprinting, not needing
to worry about obstacles. The world
was too barren to provide any.

And now from high above I watched
my sister watching me far ahead of her
in desert dust, a change, progress even,
from previous dreams of running

into the wind, eyes open, but barely able
to swim through air. In those oppressive
traps, I’d turn around, not missing
a step, run backwards, my neck

twisted to see behind me,
which is ahead of me,
and run until I have enough
momentum then flip around

facing forward until pushed back
by the wind again. The only way
to get ahead was by going backwards:
I relived the race over and over

on a pink-oval-spongy track,
sometimes with other runners
in lanes on either side of me,
sometimes alone.

This has happened all my life.
Running in the desert was the second
time I ran forward in a dream –
the first time a couple of weeks ago

when I chased around a young man
with a soccer ball. Robert Main –
do you remember him?
Or he became Robert after I awoke.

I never caught him but could block him
running forwards, sideways and in every
direction a person is supposed to run,
including backwards while facing frontwards.

This first time running in the right direction
was not elating, but the relief of reaching
a long-time goal permeated my body
when I awoke. In the desert, I looked

neither left nor right. I looked for no one,
saw nothing. The only thing to do was run.
The only direction, straight ahead.
The only way, blind.

“Subconscious Intelligence”

“….We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, I 156-58

Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux have a wonderful book you might be interested in if you are interested in poetry and haven’t read it already: The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. In their chapter, “Stop Making Sense: Dreams and Experiments,” they write, “Centuries before the surrealists or their immediate predecessors, people of all cultures placed a high importance on dreams and visions as a means to spiritual knowledge. Throughout the ages, people have enacted rituals that involved ingesting hallucinogenic plants, fasting, sweating, self-flagellation, and other practices with the aim of contacting levels of awareness unavailable to the everyday self.”

While I’m not in to hallucinogens or whacking myself on the back, I have come to this point, as I would think most people have, through exercise or going the day without eating if I’m busy or focused on a particular project, or by dreaming. In the first two instances, I believe the body goes into over-drive and is able to push the mind further. This was the basis for my poem, “Follow-Up to Breathing,” an early version of which is posted on this blog and that I wrote after a difficult yet enjoyable snowshoe trek in the Rockies. More often though, I try to pay attention to what’s going on in my dreams. We just can’t function in reality like we do in dreams, with the juxtaposition of images, the passing back and forth between past, present, and future, the unexpected visits from people you haven’t thought about in years.

In The Creative Process, Reflections on Inventions in the Arts and Sciences, Morton Prince’s essay, “Subconscious Intelligence Underlying Dreams,” explores writing poetry as being the same process as dreaming, that is “the same process expresses the same ideas in verbal symbolism as a substitution for the hallucinatory symbolism” (359). Immediately writing down what occurs in a dream produces a different effect than thinking about that dream later and committing it to script. Morton Prince calls it “a subconscious intelligence” (361).  Poets want to go there, so much so that at times we do dangerous things to arrive at the destination.

“A subconscious intelligence” is why poems are at times confusing and ungraspable (even to the poet). Poets pull ideas and images from their subconscious intelligence (what some might call “The Muse”) and weave those into the reader’s consciousness through the use of written words. Even though it may be beyond the reader’s ability to totally understand, the experience of exploring someone else’s “subconscious intelligence,” the poem can still be enjoyable. This is what I believe is happening in James Wright’s poems as explained in QB’s blog, “Poet by Poet.” Through rhythm and the sounds of words (both of which involve repetition, and the incantation of repetition is a topic to discuss in another post), through just enough conscious intelligence we can hang on to the poem, believe in it, even enjoy it although we may not understand it.

Which brings me to another point that is found in the book by the Estate of Louis Untermeyer, The Pursuit of Poetry: A Guide to Its Understanding and Appreciation with an Explanation of its Forms and a Dictionary of Poetic Terms. In the chapter, “The Ambiguities of Poetry,” it states, “Associations, private and often chaotic, originate in the welter of the unconscious and attain clarity only after they have been directed by the conscious mind. Coleridge described the process as ‘the streamy nature of association which thinking curbs and rudders.’” The text goes on to give the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Tithonus” and explains “the reader, wooed by the lovely sounds, accepts the assemblage of unrelated details. He forgets, as Tennyson probably forgot, that the poet is portraying the king of Troy’s brother who was turned into a grasshopper…It is the unreasonable combination of music and imagery which, in its very vagueness, enchants him.” And us.

As a poet, I want to be understood, sure, yet I also want to be mysterious and wallow in that realm that almost makes sense. I don’t want to be understood when only the rules of consciousness apply.

Leaf Shadows

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Dream and Imagination in Shakespeare – an article by Jerome Mandel published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.

Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime

Four Dream Poems:
The Song in the Dream – by Saskia Hamilton
I Might Have Dreamed This – by Kirsten Dierking
Dream of the Evil Servant – by Reetika Vazirani
Dream Variations – by Langston Hughes

To the right is another dream-like photo I took while hiking the Vermont Long Trail. I like it because the leaves are green on the rock. They are shadows, but there is green moss or lichen on the rock so the shadows appear green.