Why People Should Read Poetry

In 1991, nationally acclaimed poet and critic Dana Goia published his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic Monthly.  A year later, following a enormous out-pouring of responses from critics and poets, Goia published a book under the same title (which can be found here), which collected his original essay and a number of essays written in response.  The essay and book discuss the state of American poetry in modern society – lamenting that poetry has become a subculture generated, fed, and followed almost entirely by poets, academics, and administrators, with little-to-no attention paid by the general public.  Newspapers no longer review poetry, even Pulitzer-prize winning poetry.  The only non-poets who still might read poetry are those high school and undergraduate students who are forced to for one or two Literature classes.

What is perhaps most ironic is that in this time, as the attention paid to poetry by the general public has declined to almost nothing, avenues for exploring poetry have exploded into numbers never before seen.  As Goia states, there have never before been so many new books of poetry published, or so many literary magazines and anthologies.  As of 1992, there were several thousand college-level jobs for teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary level.  And Congress had even institute the position of “poet laureate,” and as of this writing, 40 states also have a poet laureate or writer-in-residence.  There are also thousands of prizes, fellowships, and programs set up for writers in general and poets specifically around the country.

And yet, so few people read poetry anymore.  Many writers (of any genre) will still read poetry, but the general public of readers seem to have forgotten poetry exists, and read only fiction.  Part of the problem is that, as the group of American poets have become a subculture, they have more and more written only to themselves, thus making it more and more difficult for the public culture to access what is being written.  However, as no one reads poetry anymore, who else do poets have to write to other than each other?  It is a vicious cycle.

So the trick is two-fold: convincing people, once again, that poetry has intrinsic value and is worth reading; and finding a way to make at least some of what is written more accessible to the general reader.  So, why should people read and be interested in poetry?  Goia offers two major reasons.

“The first reasons involves the role of language in a free society.  Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.  A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it – be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”

As Ezra Pound warns: “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient.  That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.  It doesn’t matter whether a good writer wants to be useful or a whether the bad writer wants to do harm… If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”

Goia’s second reason is that poetry is not the only art that has been pushed to the margins of society.  Most serious arts have declined into a “subculture of specialists” who have no choice but to only write/perform for each other (this includes, for Goia serious drama and Jazz among other things).

However, I believe the question of why poetry is important is about more than the political power wielded by language (such as when George Orwell says: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”) or rescuing any and all art from the margins (though these are two very important reasons).  Poetry should be read because it is first and foremost the language of the people.  Before there was fiction, or biography, or news editorials, or religious texts, or anything else, there was poetry.  I include song in with poetry, as they are essentially the same in many regards – and, having said that, the argument could be made that people “read” poetry all the time through the absorption of songs.  But while many music does in fact fit the bill, that should not excuse people from ignoring the enormous wellspring of poetry that pours out of this country every year.  Because poetry is the deep and powerful expression of the human condition; it encompasses all emotion, all modes of living; it can be mourning or celebration, song or scream, revelation or denial, acceptance or resistance.  And sometimes all of these at once.  Poets are some of the first voices to protest social and political injustices; they are some of the first to mourn losses, cultural and personal; and they are some of the first to rejoice in the wonders of the living in and for the world.

Having discussed some of Goia’s and my own reasons for reading poetry, I will wrap up by offering Goia’s six “modest proposals” for poets and poetry teachers/administrators to help bring poetry back to the public.

  1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work – preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.
  2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.  Mix poetry with other arts, especially music.
  3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.  Poets most recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications.
  4. Poets whole compile anthologies – or even reading lists – should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.  Anthologies… should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade.
  5. Poetry teachers, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.  Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism.  Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed.  The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.
  6. Finally, poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art’s audience.  Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio.  A little imaginative programming at hundreds f college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners.

I know I’ve talked at you a lot now, and I know I’ve also quoted/paraphrased Goia quite a lot (though my own opinion, I hope, is made quite obvious), but I would really love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue.

Is poetry, in fact, important?  Should people beyond writers and other poets read poetry?  Are Goia (and I) completely off-base here?  What do you feel are the most important qualities (if any) of poetry? Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated.

(Also, please return on Friday, as I will be posting one of my own poems – though the thought kind-of terrifies me a little…)

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17 thoughts on “Why People Should Read Poetry

    • I’m so glad you enjoy the blog! And I agree that writing poems is a great joy in life. I just wish I was a little better at it…

      And thanks for the poem. I love haiku!

  1. Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for the reminder re. reading poetry. Although I’m an insatiable reader and an active writer, I haven’t read much poetry since university. Shameful!

    I definitely definitely think that people, even (and maybe especially) those who don’t write, should read poetry. This may sound a by hypocritical given my lack of poetry reading these days, but like you, I believe that poetry is an important form of the written word. I think you hit it on the nose when you said:

    “So the trick is two-fold: convincing people, once again, that poetry has intrinsic value and is worth reading; and finding a way to make at least some of what is written more accessible to the general reader.”

    For me, my lack of poetry reading is more related to the latter point in the sentence above: aside from the classics, I simply have no idea what poetry to read these days.

    You’ve motivated me to add some poetry to my regular reading schedule though – thank you! And any suggestions you have about where I should start would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks for a great post,

    Carrie

    • Yay! I’ve succeeded. I feel like if I’ve gotten even one person to read poetry (or return to reading poetry) then I’ve done something right. I’m so glad my post was of use to you. And thank you so much for the thoughtful response.

      Also, in the name of shameless self-promotion, if you stick around on the blog, I’m planning on writing a few poetry reviews to give people some suggestions of what to read. Just so you know…

  2. I was thinking about this today while trying to learn about some of the great English poets. I’m just not a poetry guy. I love stories and writing but I can’t get into sitting down to read poetry. Often I’ll hear someone else read it or even stumble across a cool post w/ some in there, but it’s not my thing. Yet I love music sooo much and know lyrics to probably thousands of songs. Dunno, that’s my take.

    • Of course, plenty of songs definitely count as poetry (at least to me), so I guess that counts. It’s certainly better than nothing. I know for some people, poetry just isn’t their cup of tea, and that’s fine, ’cause not everyone can read everything. I just wish more people would even be willing to give a SHOT. You know?

  3. Yo! Ok, let me put on my artsy-fratsy hat and get this ball rolling! I kinda suck at writing coherently, so this will be mostly in the form of a rant.

    Poetry. I don’t read poetry. I’ve never read poetry. I’ll be perfectly honest, outside of songs I tend to dislike poetic writing. Oddest thing? I have no idea why. I suspect it might be related to high school.
    I tend to be a person who, in scientific terms, can be described as “stubborn mule”, so in high school whenever my literature teacher told me I had to read anything (usually poetry since we study a lot of that), my very base reaction was to say that no, in fact i do not HAVE TO read anything. At all.
    Let me tell you, it lead to many arguments, and some of the most insightful ones I’ve had with any teacher in school.

    Also, let me tell you something – being forced to memorize something is the surest way to know you will not memorize and that you will come to hate it with a passion. I suck at memorizing long passages of words. Because of that I could never really get the whole “reciting poetry” thing going on. And I hated the fact that I was forced to do it.

    What else….ah, right! As you said up there “Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.” And I’m not good with language. I draw, so I find it easier to understand drawings than language. I do admire people who know how to manipulate words, although I also hate it when they do so just for the sheer point of showing off that they can. Sadly a lot of poets and artists seem to be this way, so that alienates me as well.

    Also, like any subculture,lots of members in the poetry one seem to have a bit too high of an opinion of their choice of obsession. Another sure way to make sure nobody is ever going to be interested in your thing is to get up and proclaim that anyone who does can not recite several books of poetry by heart is just a dumb and uneducated person who clearly understands nothing of art. This is a huge turn off, and I have been told such things, even if not in such an exaggerated manner.

    But to finally answer your question – Yeah, I do think poetry’s important. It’s a nice way of conferring ideas and concepts with not too many words. If not artistic, that’s also pretty damn useful.

    Oh and despite all I’ve said here – I do actually have a favorite poem. It’s written by one of the big Bulgarian poets, Nikola Vaptzarov and while I’d attempt to translate it, I’m afraid I’ll only butcher it. I can’t recite even one verse from it from memory, but I do regularly re-read it. That counts for something, I guess?

    • Wow, Jenx! Thanks for the essay in response, I really enjoyed it. I’m not going to attempt to respond to it all, but let me say a few things. First, it is understandable to not like something simply because a teacher told you to read it. I’ve had the same problem with a few books high school teachers made me read, but years later I would return to those same books and LOVE them. (In the same vein, even when we hate to do something because its for school doesn’t necessarily mean its not useful or good for you, and sometimes the things you’re forced to do in school end up showing you something you end up LOVING, which you wouldn’t have known you’d love if school didn’t force you to do it. — Keep in mind, I’m also a teacher. ^_^ )

      Also, I agree that many poets and their poetry tends to be… uh… full of its own importance… but that is one of the things Goia’s essay and my post both discuss – the need for poets to make at least SOME of their work more accessible to the general reader.

      As for the problems of language – even non-writers can and (I believe) SHOULD have some understanding and command of the ins-and-outs of language. Because language is all around you all the time, no matter what. And people who aren’t familiar with the ways language can be used to make people think/react/feel/do certain things (sometimes without you even realizing it) are doomed to be unduly influenced by outside forces. And that’s one of the points that Goia (and many before him, including most famously George Orwell) are trying to make.

      Finally, yes. Having even a single favorite poem that you re-read often DEFINITELY counts for something. And if you ever find a translation of the poem, send it my way, I’d love to read it!

      (And gee, I guess I did respond to the whole thing, didn’t I…?)

      • Oh man, that was also an essay! It is ON now! *flips the artsy-fartsy cap backwards*

        See the argument I had with my teacher was kind of stupid, because it was just about those very simple words – “have to”.

        I agree that a lot of books and poems and what have you you learn in school are in fact good, even great masterpieces, and that knowing them would enrich your life. You might every likely even not go anywhere without knowing them. But I still don’t HAVE TO read anything. I just enjoy the concept of freedom, and I dislike it when people tell me I have to do something when I do not, in fact, have to do it, but it’s a very very good idea. To me, it’s a pretty damn big difference.

        Hell, that poem I like? We learned that in school. AND, I did in fact now find some translation of it here –>

        http://www.slovo.bg/old/f/en/vaptsarov/songofmn.htm

        It’s…not that good. I guess that makes sense, obviously, that it the translation will not have the same impact as the original, but I guess it gives you the general gist of it. I’d like to read your opinion of it actually.

        Language: Well, I do try to express myself as clearly as possible, which sometimes means taking long pauses in the middle of a conversation so I can try and find the right word for what I’m trying to say, but the fact is that I don’t really seem to be able to use words as masterfully as I would like….Then again i don’t draw as well as I’d like either, so that’s not saying all that much.

        As for the accessibility of poems – I’m all over that. I still don’t think I’d sit on the bus to work and read a book of poems instead of what I usually read, but who knows – I might actaully find something I like and read that too.

        Oh oooooh, wait! I forgot! There’s another classic Bulgarian poem I also like, this one: http://www.slovo.bg/showwork.php3?AuID=283&WorkID=10654&Level=2

        Wow…..Man I am so not underground. ;/ The hip poet circles are now gonna ridicule me….

        …nah I’m kidding, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about those people. XD

        • I could say that you are a little TOO stubborn, and that not doing something because someone told you to and ONLY because someone told you to, is just as bad as DOING something ONLY because someone told you to. That’s never a good reason. But… let’s not get into that here.

          The two poems you linked to are very interesting. I wish I could suggest some poets to you in your native language (as it is sometimes hard to get the feel for something written in a secondary language), but as I don’t know Bulgarian, I can’t. Still, based on the two poems you’ve shared, I think you might like American poet Stephen Vincent Benet. I might have to post one of his poems on the blog next week. He’s one of my favorites, though contemporary poets don’t pay him much attention anymore, which is a tragedy if you ask me.

  4. Thought I’d drop in. Hi! 🙂

    Like Jenx, I too find it far easier to express myself and understand the world through images than through words. I love languages, but there are so many subtleties, so many nuances and the semantics that I find it impossible to express or understand anything clearly in words!

    I never used to like poetry, in fact I hated it deeply as a kid due to poor experiences with my school and destructive peers.

    However, a year ago I ended up ‘forcing’ myself to love poetry via roleplaying a character who was a graceful and skilled poet. ‘Fake it till you make it’ I thought. So I immersed myself in the role (grudgingly at first) and frequently wrote and recited poems to other players through him in gaming sessions.

    Over time I began to notice little insights and sparks of wonder in the poetry I would write or recite to others. Something inside began to stir, to move me. One day it clicked – I finally understood the effect it has on the soul.

    While I feel I don’t have the full appreciation or insight as a true poet, I am definitely grateful for the newer experience with poetry.

    • I would never have thought of role-playing as a way to get into poetry. How fascinating! I’m so glad you’ve find at least some that show you that spark. Not all poetry appeals to all people, but when you find something that really touches you, its quite an experience.

  5. (Get ready for the longest Joeyepiclengthareyoureyesbleedingyetnovelpost so far~!)

    But yes. So I’ve been reading your recent poetry posts and thinking and pondering and doing a lot of not-replying for a couple reasons.

    1. I haven’t quite been sure what to say. And,

    2. I’m totally yet another of the people you kinda need to change the mind of. ^^;

    Kinda.

    Mostly.

    Okay, in my defense, I do hold a lot of respect for poetry and the people who write it. I know it takes a lot of work to write something that can sometimes be so deceivingly simple. Poetry brings out the nuanced beauty of language in a way that prose isn’t always able to. And I have rather fond memories of a certain little book of poetry that was one of my childhood treasures.

    And yet, I’d say that at least 95% of the time, when I sit down and start to read a poem that’s been placed in front of me, I get a few lines in, and my eyes just start skipping. Most of the time, I simply can’t seem to focus on it, regardless of how “good” or “bad” a poem it might be. Heck, even if a poem/song/something in verse comes up in the middle of a novel, if it lasts more than a few lines, I tend to automatically start to skip over it. I’ve thought and thought and thought some more, and can’t really come up with a good reason why. I hold the art of poetry itself in high regard, and I even enjoy writing a little of it myself from time to infrequent time. Yet hold out a book of poetry and a book of prose in front of me, and I’ll invariably go for the prose every time.

    And I know you’re probably ready to disown me as a friend right about now, but I say this more to lead into some suppositions of my own about why some people may not read poetry.

    1) Attention span. I don’t think you’ll find many people today who would disagree with the observation that our attentions spans seem to be shrinking with each and every generation. There’s enough evidence in media of all sorts that supports that. And poetry for a lot of people still represents something long and droning on. Now, most know that there’s a lot of poetry that isn’t like that, and yet that’s a difficult impression to shake. And to thoroughly enjoy poetry sometimes you sometimes need to dedicate some time and effort to your reading of it. Which is not a problem on a lazy summer afternoon, but lunch break at the office doesn’t always cut it either.

    2) Culture in general. Especially American culture. We tend to want progress, we want results, we want things more or less spelled out for us. Even a lot of mainstream prose is simplifying in that manner. And while poetry can again be all of those things (yet still less-so than prose tends to be), it also tends to double back on itself, circle round, drop hints and symbolism, have double and triple-meanings, and then start all over again. Prose has an established order – an established order within its sentences, within its paragraphs, within its chapters, and within its volumes. Poetry is much more likely to break any and all of those rules. And need I even mention how much less people are reading in general these days?

    3) Accessibility. You already touched on this one some, but I think it’s definitely a big one. I think it’s less a matter of poetry being out there for people to read, and more a matter of people knowing how to find what would work for them. Case in point – I was in the bookstore a few days ago and picked up a book cover that looked vaguely interesting. Upon opening it, I flipped through, realized that it was a poetry anthology, and pretty much put it down again in order to move on.

    Now, when it comes to book-shopping, I know what I like, and I pretty much know what to look for and where. Certain types of covers catch my eye, and if there’s something I’m not certain of, I can always just check the jacket. It’s not too hard to tell if a book is something you might enjoy just by reading the blurb. And certain things like what you know about the author or what you’ve heard other people say about the book/author might help. Even that is less-available with poetry. You can’t really check the blurb of a poetry book, and poets don’t get the kind of names that a lot of prose-writers do.

    Personally, I know the classics, and I’m familiar with some of the writers that I had to read in for class in the past. And yet, if I was in the mood to go buy myself a book of poetry, I honestly don’t think I’d even know where to start. Maybe I’m being a little unfair or showing some ignorance on my part, but it is honestly how I’ve felt from time to time.

    4) It exploded. As you pointed out, there’s so many more avenues for poetry and so much more of it being written these days. But the problem is that a lot of poetry has fallen to the level of blogs, web-lit, youtube, and self-publishing. I’m not really a part of the poetry community, so I can’t really say, but from my perspective, it seems like the standards are all-too-often missing. There’s simply so much that it tends to cheapen and hide what good has been mixed in with the bad. And what people do end up exposed to is not necessarily what might appeal to them or even what might be deserving of their respect. (Not to take away from personal expression, especially in a realm of writing that is so uniquely and intimately personal, since it is a realm where one person can only very rarely ever judge for another…but still.)

    But yes. There’s probably more reasons, but those are the main ones that come to my mind for the moment. And anyway, I’ve once again gone and written too much, stayed up too late, and not really answered the questions you asked at all. So I’m going to leave it at that. Until next time~

    • Wow, Joey! Talk about writing an essay…

      I don’t think I’m gonna even try to respond to all of that, but I’d like to say that multiple meanings and rule-breaking are, for me, some of the biggest APPEALS of poetry, especially as a postmodernist. And I think that in contemporary society, which is, without really meaning to, becoming more postmodern by the day, multiplicity and blurred lines/borders are things that people should, and probably will, get used to.

      Also, I’m not the “attention-span” argument makes much sense to me, seeing as how a poem is general so much shorter than any kind of prose you could read. It so easy (time-wise) to sit down and read one poem, and then if you don’t really understand it, even just letting it mull around in the back of your head for the rest of the day would probably do a lot. And then, if you needed to, you could always go back to it later. I’m not advocating that everybody needs to read poetry the same way an English major or lit critic would — over and over again, making notes in margins, trying to parse out every possible meaning they can find. Just reading SOMETHING, and giving it a SHOT, would be enough. And there is still, even in this postmodern atmosphere, PLENTY of poetry that doesn’t require a Phd in philosophy to understand. Not ALL of it so dense, complicated, or bizarre.

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