Why I read poetry

A few months ago, I posted a light-hearted look at mondegreens and malchichés. Clichés are useful to some extent because we believe we know what those phrases mean, and they serve the purpose of general communication. To confess “I’m feeling blue” can elicit compassion from a good friend, or help us to state a mood so that we might, possibly, move on from it. Popular song lyrics employ such figures of speech often, and often to good effect.

But clichés also leave something to be desired, don’t give a full enough account of the human situation. In the poem “Madame la Fleurie,” Wallace Stevens describes a man who looks into a mirror and believes what he sees depicts his actual life. But it is only a reflection; the image is “a page he found in the handbook of heartbreak.” A page in the handbook of heartbreak: that begins to express a more complex and specific feeling.

Poems can express every subtle shade of blue a person might feel. There is Emily Dickinson’s Hour of Lead and Elizabeth Bishop’s art of losing, Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues and Theodore Roethke’s desolation in immaculate places.  For thousands of years, poets have understood, and been able to convey, the vivid and expansive range of human emotions that our lively and energetic brains and souls experience—from unbearable grief to listless ennui, from a moment of surprising cheerfulness to the uplifting embrace of romantic or spiritual love. How poets accomplish this subtle connection between people, this empathy, amazes me. Especially as this mutual exchange of feelings takes place through the abstract medium of words.

This is why I read poetry. When a friend’s child died, I consoled myself with Ben Jonson’s words, “farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy” and nothing else seemed as apropos, even though the poem was composed almost 400 years ago. When life gets tough, Andrew Marvel’s lines about how feeble hope has tinsel wings in the face of magnanimous Despair just about sum up my feelings. Such poems may offer little cheer, yet they can comfort. Through gorgeous language and imagery that is honest if sometimes fanciful, good poems remind us that we are not alone in our circumstances.

Poems identify feelings, places, situations, and allusions to which another human being—perhaps hundreds of years or thousands of miles away—can relate. That relationship has a wonderful effect, for poetry offers a way to connect the rich and complicated scope of our humanity with the lives and sympathies of others, especially during troubled times. I know that my own heart begins rebounding from stress and gloom when I read Neruda’s lines: “through me, freedom and the sea/will bring solace to my downcast heart.” As we navigate through political and economic and personal hassles, we might want to open a poetry anthology now and then, or call up a website such as A Poem a Day or Verse Daily for a fix of shared humanity in an increasingly virtual world. After all, “What the heart longs for,” says Gregory Orr, “the poem accomplishes.”

One person who has taken this poetry inspiration into the wider world is Nicelle Davis. Check out her year-long poetry project at The Bees Knees.

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One comment on “Why I read poetry

  1. Thank you for this post. Poetry can be such a consolation. When my godmother died, I was reading In Memoriam and there was something comforting in knowing that Hesper and Phosphor were the same star.

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