Questions There Are No Answers For–Why Poetry Matters

Poetry matters. When we grapple to find the words that express the most profound moments of human existence, the deepest questions of reality, the moments in life that indelibly change us, we turn to poetry. Why?

The root for poetry can be traced back to the Greek poesis, and means, according to etymology online “literally “a making, fabrication,” variant of poiesis, from poein, poiein “to make or compose”.’ In its fundamental sense, then, the poet is one who creates, who brings into being. Historically, the poet in places like the British Isles and India went from place to place telling the histories in poetic form. The Ramayana, for example, was written in verse. Traditionally, storytellers in India carried scrolls from village to village and retold the epic. Storytellers, paid by patrons who wanted to hear their stories, also carried story boxes–which functioned as a kind of traveling temple with paintings of the gods on fold-out doors, and storytellers used these as touchstones as they told their tales.

In previous decades, poetry held a larger part of our culture’s fabric. Students regularly memorized poems in school as an important part of their education. I remember my father quoting lines from Longfellow while frying eggs for breakfasts on Saturday mornings. I can’t help but think of the lines from Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” when I see a ring around the moon. “Last night, the moon had a golden ring,/ And tonight no moon we see!” I can see the back of my father’s head even now in my mind’s eye, and hear the tone of his voice as he recites “Under the spreading chestnut tree,/ the village smithy stands;” or as he says the lines from “The Song of Hiawatha.” The rhythms and sounds of the poems he learned as a child followed him through the years, and have stuck with me as a result of hearing them so often. “By the shores of Gitche Gume,/ By the shining Big Sea Water.” The words and their rhythm link me to story and to memories–connecting the smell of food, the open flow of time, the slow start of a Saturday morning, to my father’s presence and the world he inhabited and learned from.

What makes poetry especially powerful for me, and the reason I come back to it over and over is because poetry tries to name what can’t actually be named. It tries to get at the essence of the mysteries life contains and is. Logic and rational thought have limitations after a certain point. Life and the experiences in it are, after all, more than the sum of parts. Data displays and statistics can powerfully demonstrate ideas and can even be displayed beautifully, but poetry, like other art forms, is able to take us into a place that moves beyond the boundaries of logic into a deeper space of being—one that holds life open to be witnessed in a deep looking and reflection, in an awareness of the presence of something that can be felt in the totality of one’s being. As poet Donald Hall says in his essay, “The Unsayable Said”, “—poetry exists to say the unsayable.”

A central aim of poetry is to find the words to tell the thought—the right words that name the truth of one’s own experience, the lens through which the poet sees the world. Through that act of naming, the poet enters into the creative act of making and shaping meaning. The ancient bards of the British Isles were called shapers. In writing poetry, we join ourselves to the world anew through this naming and shaping and become co-creators, so to speak. Maybe Adam in the Garden was the first poet. He had to study the animals, observe who and what they were, and find the word that best distinguished and defined that animal’s essence.

Writing poetry intimately connects the writer to the creative act, and the creative act is one of the most fundamental qualities that makes us human. Genesis tells us humans were made in the image of God, and when creating poetry, the writer can experience a connection to that ground of all being that the mystics have written about. The poet Karl Shapiro in his essay, “What is Not Poetry?” explains, “Every good poet is a “mystic”; that is, he departs from the dictionary, as the painter departs from the straight line and the perfect circle.” When I write poetry, I feel like a scuba diver immersed in the depths of the experience I am writing about, swimming through it and living fully inside of the moment. I sense the current moving around me–the water buoying me up. I peer under rocky shelves of an experience or an idea, notice the shafts of light drifting down, grow aware of movement in my peripheral vision, and discover what rises up from the depths. I feel alive, connected to the moving fabric, the breath of being—something that can’t be wholly defined, but is nevertheless felt as present.

I’m not talking about the supernatural here so much as I am speaking of the presence of life inside of the physical world, whispering through it, so to speak. Shapiro goes on to say in his essay,

“It is idle to claim that poetry is a secular art or an art of the supernatural. These are critical dualisms, secular and supernatural, which solve nothing. The poet does not distinguish between them. The natural poet, the primitive poet, the “lyrical” poet, cannot make any such distinctions because they do not exist for him. The poet is always “one” with his experience; to that extent he does inhabit the realm of the supernatural. All artists search for a unification of the elements of a particular experience, the photographer cropping a negative no less than the painter choosing his landscape or model, or the poet looking for the poetry of the thing that engages him at the moment. The artist is different from other people in that he is in a constant state of “oneness” with his experience. When he is not, he is out of Paradise; he has fallen into the world of rationality where all dualisms run riot. It is a fact, I think, that to most poets the ordinary world seems insane; and quite naturally the poet seems mad to the pedestrian or rational mind. Pure science bears most of the characteristics of art; chiefly what is different about the work of abstract science is the absence of the emotional center of motivation; but scientists are, in the popular rational mind, also considered mad.

Poetry is able to take us beyond the world we often inhabit where we are defining and deciding, evaluating and cutting away. Poetry can reground us in a world of being that moves beyond dualisms and divisions where we recognize our shared humanity.

This is not to say that poetry doesn’t try and define or doesn’t use analysis. It does. But its larger aim is to return us to a sense of wholeness. Though people may not recognize it, poetry meets the human need to probe the mystery of life, and this is perhaps a central reason why I return to it over and over. Poetry causes me to grapple with questions there are no answers for, moves me to an awareness that I am a small spark in the midst of the flame of life, makes me stand in awe at the wonder of being, and fills me with gratitude that I am able to wander around in the midst of time. Writing poetry returns me to an awareness of the great gift life is. What is the benefit this can have for our lives? The lines William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”  offers an explanation,

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

According to Williams, though we might not readily see its value, we could all use a bit more poetry in our lives. Many things happen in this world that make it into the news, but those things that bring deep meaning and joy to us—those things that nourish and sustain us—are found in the personal, in the relationships and loves moving inside our lives’ inner rooms, in the spaces of our heart that connect the world at large to the intimate. Poetry feeds these needs.

There is plenty of misery in this world. Poetry doesn’t remove the misery or the tensions of life, but it gives us a way to look at it and to talk about it that digs deep into the bone and speaks the truths of our being. Through imagery, metaphor, rhythm, alliteration, and other poetic devices, poetry in its musicality and its reliance on word connotations and associations, joins words to the physical world. It allows us to reflect, to search our hearts, to name our questions and what we know. Our brains respond to poetry like they do to music recent research tells us. (See more at Red Orbit, “This is your Brain. This is Your Brain on Poetry.”) The truth and the gift that poetry has to give us isn’t laid out for us to grasp directly. Its message isn’t delivered in a thesis statement with clearly enumerated points falling beneath. Instead, its insight is hidden inside metaphor and  embodied within imagery. You have to hunt to find it. You must search.

Perhaps this is in part why poetry is not currently popular. We live in a world where we value data and points that are clearly laid out in a logical plan that we can follow step by step. We want the main idea of what we’re reading made obvious without wasting our precious time, because time is something most people don’t have the patience to take slowly. I’m reminded of the opening lines from Dickens’ novel Hard Times, “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” I must confess, I wonder why I feel compelled to cite research about poetry and the brain in order to make poetry’s value more convincing. I suppose I do so in part because I recognize that research is what gives something credibility these days, but this raises questions for me. We need both rational and irrational thought to function well in this world. Isn’t there something imbalanced in our way of being, though, that we can’t recognize the value of other ways of thinking that aren’t left brain and rational as having credibility in themselves? Again, as Dickens writes in Hard Times, “There is a wisdom of the Head, and… there is a wisdom of the Heart.” Poetry is not only an expression of the mind, it educates the heart.

Ange Mlinko in an interview in Poetry magazine with Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010) talks about how poetry is currently, in the US anyway, “isolated from public discourse…poets can’t be considered possessors or transmitters of “knowledge” because we as a society have decided that knowledge is quantifiable—but art is not. Art is precisely the experiment that can’t be reproduced under identical conditions.” McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary, argues about the “primacy of metaphor to our thinking.” (See more of this interview at the Poetry Foundation web site.) McGilchrist explains, “We live in a society where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are not valued.” Poetry arises out of the brain’s right hemisphere where the oblique and implicit reign, says McGilchrist, and poets may need to smuggle in their jewels by distracting the officers of the left hemisphere.

In general, people today want quick results for most everything. We don’t like to wait for food, for profit, for growth. To give ourselves to a poem, either in reading or in writing it, is to reorient ourselves to the organic nature of understanding and wisdom earned over time and through effort. Poetry gives us jewels if we take the time to dig for them. The question poetry gives us is, are we going to open ourselves to see the value in the time that the digging takes?

Poetry, because it requires that we use words with their clearest, most precise and truest meaning in a given context, moves us beyond the empty or false rhetoric that often fills our world, inundating us with advertising campaigns where even some news reports employ words to sell the audience on ideas. In general, the way language is often used in our contemporary context actually sells us short because the language we frequently hear is not authentic communication coming from the center of who we really are. In a world where nearly everything is commodified and holds some kind of monetary value, poetry, instead, aims to use language in a way that is authentic and real. Poetry opens a window into truth and requires integrity in the words used. In this way, poetry can restore us to a connection with each other, or at least shows us a picture of this potential. In our world where it’s difficult for people to comprehend the value of quietness or the interior life, where carving out time for reflection is rare, and where the vulnerability it takes to speak the truth with integrity seems too risky, it’s not a wonder that poetry isn’t much valued by the general public.

The surface reality is more or less accepted as actual substance today. An example of this is how corporations have taken hold of our government structures, and those with money and power control much of what we hear and see in the media. This has led us into environmental problems, where it is acceptable for corporations to take whatever they find beneficial in order to increase their profits without having to give much back to the environment or the community in return. The capitalist system encourages us see ourselves as separate from the natural world so that we can go on using up resources without feeling any particular responsibility for what is taken from the community because the goal is to increase profit, not to preserve wholeness or balance. Poetry, on the other hand, speaks to a different kind of power—the power that comes from the search to connect to an authentic presence, which seeks to reveal the truth of the self in relationship to society and to the environment. Poetry connects us to the physical world again, and helps us to listen to and notice its mystery and value it for its presence. A poet must listen to the voice or voices underneath the surface of things, to what is being said that doesn’t have words—to the hidden realities and to that which is unnameable and try to name it—call it in to being. In this way writing poetry is a kind of spiritual practice, and as such, it’s no wonder that poetry is left on the fringes of cultural discussion.

Poetry, is a unifier. Because poetry requires truth telling, and because it joins the inner and outer worlds, the personal and the communal, because it seeks to name and/or re-envision the world, it could be an important tool that enables us to open up new dialog in the community at large. Poetry could allow us to break through the dialog that has increasingly placed people in separate camps and made it nearly impossible to listen to each other in any deep way and genuinely communicate. In this sense, writing poetry—reading and discussing it could be thought of a radical act. It could help us find how to communicate from the heart.

Maybe people don’t want to, or don’t feel they have the time to invest in uncovering what a poem is talking about. Maybe most of us are satisfied on the whole with the way things are. On the other hand, it may be that many of us feel stuck in our current cultural dilemmas and we don’t have the tools to understand how poetry could be useful in opening a discussions because most people haven’t been exposed enough to quality poetry to be able to read or understand its value. Charles Simic’s poem “Stone” comes to mind.


Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

(Here’s the poet reading it on Keilor’s Poetry Everywhere if you are interested.)

For the poet, everything in the world holds mystery, wonder. The stone in Simic’s poem is like poetry. It is the enigma, the hidden thing that is in plain sight that holds the mystery. It gets knocked around, and sinks down into the earth. That’s where it is now. We come close to it and whisper to it like the fish in his poem. Lying there inside its stony body, hidden as if behind a hill that makes it hard to peer through, there is the moon of poetry, the light it gives through strange writings on the wall—star charts that can help us find our way.

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