Why Ordinary People (Like Me) Need Poetry

College convinced me that poetry wasn’t for me.

As a reader and wannabe writer, I had loved poetry since childhood. (It’s surprisingly commonplace in children’s books.) I read my first poems in the unpretentious pages of Dr. Seuss, Jack Prelutsky, and Shel Silverstein. Most kids I knew had a weathered copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic.

My first taste of “grown-up” poetry was the aptly named anthology 100 Famous Poems. Sometimes my parents asked my brothers and me to read aloud from it on family road trips. (When we weren’t arguing or eating Doritos in the backseat.)

I didn’t understand a lot of what I read—much of it was grim 19th-century stuff about graveyards and lost love and ships at sea—but it fascinated me. It was like hearing a new language. Even then, I knew I wanted to be fluent in poetry.

When I was ten, my grandparents gave me a worn scrapbook that had belonged to my great-grandmother. The scrapbook was full of poems—in faded spidery script—that my great-grandma had written in 1918 when she was just a teenager.


Photo by Shena Tschofen // CC

I was thrilled. This scrapbook was my first realization that my great-grandma had once been young. She hadn’t always lived downtown in a high-rise apartment with a conch shell on her coffee table. She hadn’t always worn bifocals and moved slowly. Once upon a time she had been young and full of poetry.

It was the first time I realized that ordinary people could be poets. People like my great-grandmother. Maybe people like me.

I began to fill a notebook with poems of my own. I wrote recklessly with a blue ballpoint pen, without knowing the rules or how it all worked. My scratchy 4th-grade handwriting was terrible and full of scribbled out words, and the verses were heavy with emotion and cliché. I wrote about thunderstorms and my best friend and the summer Olympics.

Later as a teenager, I began to read all the poetry I could get my hands on—Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou. I discovered that poetry could be protest. It could be funny. It didn’t have to rhyme.

But when I started college, poetry suddenly became the realm of specialists. In that stratified world, poetry belonged only to people who majored in Creative Writing or wanted to be English professors.

Poems became specimens that needed to be prodded and analyzed, far beyond the grasp of average students like me. Poetry began to intimidate me. It made me feel underdressed. It dropped names I didn’t know.

In my college journalism classes I learned to write practical things like obituaries and press releases and recaps of city council meetings where people argued about concrete. There was little room in this particular world for poetry. Accuracy, objectivity, and deadlines mattered most. This is when I not only stopped writing poetry, I stopped reading it too.

For many years, my church hosted an annual arts conference. One spring, years after I graduated from college, poet and musician Micah Bournes was one of the teaching artists at the conference. He gave a dynamic spoken word performance and taught a workshop about poetry.

Bournes isn’t a lofty academic, and his poetry is about real life—faith, racism, social justice. He began his workshop by addressing common misconceptions about poetry and showed a clip of soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron from the 1980s. In the clip, Scott-Heron makes the point that “poetic” shouldn’t mean pompous or confusing. Poetry is communication, he says, but instead when people attempt to write poems they think they have to be “deep” or complex.

Bournes went on to teach that poetry is the language of emotion. He described writing poetry as a spiritual practice that can shape who we are. His workshop reopened poetry to me. I started reading (and sometimes writing) it again and I haven’t stopped.

As I’ve spent the past few years diving back into poetry, I’ve learned that I actually need poetry in my life. Here’s why:

Poetry slows me down.

Naomi Shihab Nye—a celebrated poet herself—made this beautiful observation:

“When you live in a rapidly moving swirl, you can only view your surroundings with a glance. Poetry requires us to slow down, to take time to pause.”

If you read a poem quickly, you miss it. The words may scroll past your eyes, but the meaning is lost. Often, with all the information available to me—news stories, recipes, blog posts, status updates—my mind ricochets all day long. Poetry doesn’t allow for this. It invites me to slow down.

I recently wrote about my experience with anxiety. One thing I didn’t mention is the part that poetry has played in that journey. As often as possible, I try to begin my day by reading a few poems. It can often help set my mental rhythm for the whole day.

Poetry invites me to pay attention.

It’s no secret that in our world today, our attention is fragmented. (Anyone else ever find themselves scrolling the internet while watching TV while eating a meal? Guilty as charged.) For me, poetry has become an antidote to that temptation.

Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, said this:

“To pay attention. This is our endless and proper work.”

What we give our attention to matters. Just as poetry invites me to slow down, it also invites me to stop multi-tasking. To pay attention not only to the poem itself but the ideas and concepts it’s expressing. To pay attention to the world right now.

Poetry connects with my emotions in ways that prose can’t.

This is true whether I read or write poetry. Once I was in a bookstore and impulsively grabbed a copy of Thirst by Mary Oliver. As I stood in the aisle, reading the book, the poems unexpectedly started to unearth a deep grief I had been carrying and give me words for it. I bought the book, and still read it when trying to process difficult emotions or when I’m struggling in my faith.

Poetry has a way of resonating with the parts of ourselves we have yet to articulate, including our emotions.

When I first decided to start reading poetry again, it was daunting. I didn’t know how. I had a blog at the time (kind of), so when National Poetry Month came around, I decided to find and share a poem each day. I repeated the practice the following year. This regular habit of seeking out one poem at a time was all it took.

If you’re new to reading poetry or are returning to it after a long hiatus, find one poem to read and see where it leads. (April is National Poetry Month, so it’s an ideal time to get started.) For me, a poem-a-day practice eventually led me to new poets, poetic forms, time periods, and subject matter. Here are some of the poems I found back then if you’re looking for a place to start:

“How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual” by Pamela Spiro Wagner

“Stealing Bread” by Micah Bournes

“Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Unpacking a Globe by Arthur Sze

“truth” by Gwendolyn Brooks

“The Daughter” by Carmen Giménez Smith

“Forty Years” by Mary Oliver

“Imaginary Conversation” by Linda Pastan

“1950” by Bruce Dethlefson

“New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez

“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

“Spring Storm” by William Carlos Williams

Do you have any favorite poems or poets? I’d love to hear about them in the comments so I can add them to my reading list!

(And a little disclaimer: Poetry is protected by copyright like any other written work. In order to share it in full on a website—or elsewhere—you need permission from the writer. That’s why instead of sharing full poems, I’ve provided links to the websites that have received permission to publish these works.)

Reading Time:

5 minutes

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. Dee

    Wonderful post.. I haven’t thought of poetry as a way of slowing down and noticing details, but that’s so true.

    I think a lot of times there’s so much talk of bad poetry (horrid break-up poetry, melodramatic teenage poetry), that it really dissuades us from even attempting to write a few lines. Our grandparents’ generation didn’t have all that pop culture baggage and it seems they were less inhibited when it came to writing with a capital W.

    Reply
    • KC

      In fiction and memoir written before 1927, the concept of most poetry writing as pretentious, immature, and self-absorbed (also, of the output being 98% terrible) is really strong in most communities. There might have been a gap between then and now, somewhere, where poetry was just a thing you could do, though (back in ye olde public domain days, in some communities, doggerel *was* just a social thing that you did; improv song lyrics, playing Crambo at parties; but that is differentiated fairly sharply from actual poetry). But I don’t know whether there was a no-negative-associations-with-writing-poetry period of time or not.

      I think most art has the potential to be a statement of having-something-to-say and having-the-skill-to-say-it, and both these things can be embarrassing, and embarrassing to be wrong about. I wish they weren’t embarrassing – but I also wish that people didn’t strut and posture and implicitly or explicitly say that because *they* are Arteeests, they are therefore superior to the “rest of you,” because, honestly, that’s a jerk move, and Us vs. Them is almost never a healthy community builder or a healthy people builder. But it pops up most times there is opportunity for recognition or status, and it also pops up much of the time when there’s insecurity, so hey, humans.

      Anyway: writing poetry, even if it’s bad poetry, as long as it doesn’t mess up your priorities: great! It would be very, very cool if more people felt free to take up the practice of occasionally just *writing* and crystallizing their thoughts without it being this big deal…

      (I also kind of wish that people would play Crambo as a party game again, but I don’t think it’d be considerate to spring it on people who don’t have a ton of prior practice extemporizing rhyming verse, sigh. 🙂 )

      Reply
  2. Alison

    I subscribe to the Slow Down podcast by poet laureate Tracy K Smith. She prefaces and then reads a poem each day of the week. Each episode is exactly 5 minutes. It’s the perfect time to pause and has also introduced me to a wide range of poets that I might not have found otherwise.

    As part of my goal to read more this year, I’ve also started picking up poetry volumes from the library. They sit on my bedside table, and when I’m feeling too tired to read a full chapter of a novel, or don’t have enough time in the night, it’s nice to just read a few pages of poetry. They’re easy to pick up and down, and not worry about losing your place in a book or forgetting a plot line. Highly recommend this to everyone.

    Reply
  3. Joni

    Poetry has become a new spiritual ritual for me. I love the benefits that you posted and wholeheartedly agree with them! Poetry helps me to slow down, to pay attention, to think deeply, to be present. A recent line from Mary Oliver that I am savoring and meditating on is this one from What I Have Learned So Far: “Properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.”
    As someone who also struggles with anxiety, I love the idea that by attending to my thoughts , I have the power to suggest delight and reject meditating on “havoc” or anxiety. Thank you for this rich and thoughtful post.

    Reply
  4. Nicola

    What a wonderful article – the slowing down and the ability to read one or two poems instead of chapters really resonated. Thanks so much for the links to some great poems. The following lines rang so true from How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual by Pamela Spiro Wagner
    “Poetry demands surrender,
    language saying what is true
    doing holy things to the ordinary.”

    I find Seamus Heaney most capable of doing holy things to the ordinary – here’s a link to one of his most famous(voted Irelands favourite poem):
    https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-all-the-others-were-away-at-mass/

    Also the Irish ambassador to the US Daniel Mulhall @danmulhall posts a poem on Twitter almost every day from an Irish poet, if you’re looking for new sources

    Reply
  5. Libby

    A poet I first learned about in 2012/2013 and love is Natasha Trethewey. Native Guard is the collection of hers I first read.

    Reply
  6. Toni Lucas

    Thank you for this post. I shall now pull out my poetry books and bring them to my nightstand where I can dip into them on a regular basis. I have this peculiar trait of buying poetry when I am at a used book store. I never buy a new book of poetry — I don’t know what I want. But in a store filled with old books a poet will reach out to me and I’ll buy a volume and bring it home. Sometimes I read it through, sometimes only a particular poem, but I give it pride of place in the poetry section of my library.

    Reply

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