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.


Ring of Brodgar

In the latter part of June this year, I traveled with a close friend to Scotland. We landed in Glasgow, drove north to Aberdeen, and took the fourteen-hour ferry ride to the Shetland Islands. We debarked and drove to the northern most point of the British Isles to explore Hermaness Nature Preserve where we could look off the coast into the North Sea to Muckle Flugga and the lighthouse that Robert Louis Stevenson built with his father. We were fortunate to have landed there on the summer solstice, a glorious sunny day, and fortunate to have our wool hats and gloves with us, both of which were needed.

After another day or two of exploring the wildness of the Shetland Islands (more Norse than Scottish), we headed south again; the exploits we had during our time on the Shetlands will eventually be transformed into poems some day. But the Orkney Islands, a six-hour ferry ride south of Lerwick, Shetland, is what has inspired me first with its rich history of Neolithic sites that are mysterious and beautiful. If you don’t believe in eternity, seek out Orkney.

For this week’s post, I have also included a you-tube video that consists of my reading of the poem set to my photographs.

Ring Of Brodgar

We traveled five days and nights
not knowing where we were going,
and even when we drove into the lowlands
cupped by those soft hills
that caressed both clouds and shore,
and eased our way across the isthmus
with the salt water Loch of Stenness
a few feet  to our left and the freshwater
Loch of Harray, a few feet to our right,
we were blind.

On foot we climbed
into the Ring of Brodgar
as though it were just another mark
on the map to tap in front of our friends’
noses after our arrival home.
We were not prepared for sanctity,
didn’t know that the weight of the cosmos,
or the collapse of time,
or the compression of space
was held – somehow – within
this wall-less cathedral. Ancient
stones reared up in front of us,
lichen-splotted, pock-marked, gallant.
Others, time had eroded into wraiths
of their solid pasts. Half of one
lay at its own feet, split in two
by lightening, as we had been.
We walked around the circle,
separating from each other,
needing the space between us
in order to not fall
to our knees,
in order to carry the weight
of all that emptiness.


Today’s discussion is a bit shorter than usual due to the time it took this week to learn how to make an ivideo on my computer and upload it to youtube. I have a new appreciation for cinematographers.

Tone is the attitude towards a subject expressed through image, rhythm, verbs, syntax, and word choice. In the poem, “Ring of Brodgar” the tone isn’t really the one I intended. (For a thorough discussion of tone and author’s intention, see Donald Hall‘s chapter, “Tone, with a Note on Intentions” in his book To Read a Poem). When I visited the Ring of Brodgar, I was in awe of it, amazed by its antiquity and mysterious aura; that is what I intended to convey in my poem. While perhaps this comes through somewhat, the overarching tone of the poem is uncertainty and loss.

The feeling of uncertainty is straightforwardly revealed in the second line: “not knowing where we were going.” This speaks to where we were going literally on the trip, but takes on another meaning with the content of the rest of the poem. Where are any of us going? Uncertainly continues. Driving across the isthmus just a few feet wide isn’t exactly the easiest of routes to maneuver, despite the soft comforting hills around us. Adding to the tone are the phrases, “We were blind,” “we were not prepared,” and “wraiths of their solid pasts.” These phrases also create suspense until we have the lightening strike and the revelation that it isn’t only the stones that have been struck, but the “we” in the poem as well. Here the poem shifts to a tone of great loss, emphasized by the physical separation of the characters in the poem as they explore the monument, and the image of falling to one’s knees (in prayer? due to too heavy a burden?). In the last two lines, the combination of weight and emptiness echoes both the gravity of the uncertainty in life and the space found between the standing stones, between centuries, between lives.

As mentioned, this was not the tone I set out to convey. But it is much closer to the truth.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Ancient Scotland
Tone in Poetry
and for the fun of it – Isle of Yell Mermaids

Bald-faced Hornets

I went walking in the woods recently with a friend, and we came across a very large hornets nest – about two and a half feet in length and as wide as a basketball – hanging from a branch six feet above the ground. It was astoundingly beautiful. I learned that it was a bald-faced hornets nest. As you can see from the photo below, these hornets resemble Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Bald-faced Hornet.

With the beauty of the woods that day and the chance encounter with a living work of art, I wanted to write a pastoral poem about it. But it just wasn’t happening. Instead what was happening was Todd Akin. Usually, after several days of the same news story broadcasted over and over again, I tune out, but I became fascinated with this one, mainly because I had no idea some people really believed what Akin said about rape and pregnancy. (This sort of shocking statement makes me wonder about my own ignorance, too. What do I espouse that is just totally wrong? It reminds me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads “Don’t believe everything you think”).

In the Seattle Times, Gail Collins explains in her article “Todd Akin and the theory of the delighted womb” that Akin’s beliefs are not unique and certainly not new. She begins the article: “In colonial America, conventional wisdom held that women could not get pregnant unless they enjoyed the sex. People, who would have thought I’d have an opportunity to bring up this factoid right in the middle of a presidential race? Thank you, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri!”

It seems as though what I intend to write about never actualizes, and every week I have to trust the winding way of discovery, reflection, and serendipity.

Bald-Faced Hornets

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
back up in the woods, we were not looking
for anything. Not the nest, not peace and quiet,
not ourselves. We were just walking, relaxing,
minding our own business.

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
was the day the politician was not making
sense about anything. Not rape, not pregnancy,
not women. He was just talking, bumbling,
minding everyone else’s business.

Photo by Higgins

The hornets’ nest, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of bald-faced wasps that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of their home. They were not bothering
anything, yet the potential in that hive!




The politician’s belfry, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of the bald-faced comments that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of his face. He was not bothering
with any facts, yet the potential of those words!

Bald-faced hornets chew thin strips of wood
mix it with saliva and spit it out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and beautiful yet functional home. Cells
inside provide each wasp its own space.

Bald-faced politicians chew thin strips of words,
mix them with saliva and spit them out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and dangerous yet powerful following. Cells
inside their system provide each belief its own space.

The queen lays eggs and feeds them chewed up insects
after they’ve become larvae. These are only female
hornets, and they hatch to build new cells, collect food,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the queen
lays more eggs – females and males hatch.

The politician lays ideas in people and feeds them chewed up facts
after they’ve become convoluted. These are about female,
or “other” targets, and they hatch, collect momentum,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the politician
lays more eggs – female and males believe.

Finally the females and males mate, after which everyone
dies, even the old queen, all except the fertilized females.
These females burrow into old tree stumps or huddle
underground in winter to survive. Each builds a new nest
in spring. You can see the old ones, abandoned.


In the poem, “Bald-faced Hornets,” I use the beautiful hornets’ nest I found to speak of the hornets’ nest of politics. I could have continued the comparison for another stanza, or more, but I was already hitting the reader over the head with it. Despite its shortcomings, the poem does lend itself to discussing metaphor.

In a metaphor something familiar (the vehicle) is used to explain something unfamiliar (the tenor).  See the link below for famous examples – with one of my favorites by Walt Whitman, “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Robert Frost is known for expressing that metaphor is saying “one thing in terms of another.”  This is only part of what he actually said, according to Jay Parini in his book, Robert Frost, a life:  “Frost believed that the ‘greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter’’’ (265).

Parini goes on about Frost’s use of metaphor: “In formulating this, he (consciously or not) is redeploying an aesthetic common to the German Romantics, especially Goethe, who famously wrote: ‘Whoever has truly grasped the meaning of history will realize in thousands of examples that the materialization of the spirit or the spiritualization of matter never rests, but always breaks out, among prophets, believer, poets, orators, artists, and lovers of art’” (265).

While at Stonecoast, I attended a lecture by Alicia Ostriker on metaphor. She discussed metaphor in terms of love. She said that in order to create metaphor you have to look at what you want to know (the tenor of the metaphor) carefully enough to notice, to compare, to connect, to jump, to leap, as you have to in love.  She spoke of metaphor as the erotic in language. Without it, language is chilling and cold, and we see this in the language of legal and medical documents, math and logic. Ostriker went on to say that “the pleasure we take in metaphor is consent, an agreement that the distance between the two things is less.” Metaphors allow us to discover and know something at a deeper level, and are not constructed as a game.

Which, perhaps, is how I constructed “Bald-faced Hornets.” But in doing so, I did think deeper about the world of political propaganda and the systemic workings of politicians who lull people into their camps through emotional speech and unsubstantiated “facts.”  And the last stanza in my poem above leaves the reader to interpret the metaphor for him- or herself.  This is an important piece of the poem, allowing the reader to continue the metaphor with personal knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.

In her talk, Ostriker pointed out that in a metaphor the two things that are joined can neither be opposites nor be too similar. Comparing two things with no shared characteristics doesn’t work; there has to be enough similarity between the two so that the comparison makes sense. Comparing a woman’s hips, for example, to rain doesn’t really work (and I apologize to the song-writer who used this comparison). Hips are solid, powerful, meaty, sculped or bony. They do not share physical or other characteristics of rain, though maybe I’m missing something. Conversely, if there is too much familiarity (i.e. a teapot and a tea kettle) there is no point in comparing them.

(As a side-note, Ostriker also mentioned that language poetry – post-modern poetry – does not have metaphor which is a response to the increasing awareness of the suffering in the world. It is too painful to get so close to. She explained post-modernism as “modernism without the hope.” Scary).

While Ostriker takes on the serious side of metaphor, Tony Barnstone presents us with a fun exercise that gets to what Ostriker was referring to – getting to know the tenor through the vehicle. Barnstone was one of my mentors at Stonecoast and shared a Power Point he created on the “Controlled Surreal Image.” In it, he included an exercise of writing about shoes in a metaphorical way (see below in links). It is fun and gets to the idea of thinking of “one thing in terms of another.”

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

Famous metaphors
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, an amazing book by Alicia Ostriker, which was recommended by another of my mentors, Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Ostriker’s book is a must read for any poet, woman, or person interested in contemporary issues.
Barnstone Metaphor-Image Exercise