Why Poetry?

Why Poetry?

Why does one become a poet? There’s little, if any, financial reward.  Most people are rather intimidated by poetry and claim to not understand it.  Sometimes madness, suicide and self-destructive behavior are associated with being a poet.  Consider the lives and fates of Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, James Agee, Anne Sexton, Hart Crane or the infamous Sylvia Plath?  So why choose it at all?  Despite the inherent hazards of poetry as a career, I advocate the value of writing poetry as a part-time if not daily endeavor.  The act of creating with words is enormously satisfying. All you need is paper and pencil.

Poet Billy Collins described the inherent rewards of writing poems in a recent interview: “…the joy comes …from the act of writing it.  To be lost (or found) in the throes of composition is one of the greatest pleasures I can imagine.  Each poem is a little journey into the unknown, and this is an excitement that never abates. The experience seems to combine self-absorption and self-forgetting in ways I don’t fully understand.” Anyone who has ever lost themselves while creating in any art form knows this feeling.  IF this is something you have never experienced, a familiar sensation might come from sports or play during childhood.

When was the last time you spent hours on the beach building a sand castle?  If you have done this, then you understand the intense concentration and satisfaction of writing a poem.  Hours pass, and it seems like only minutes! You forget where you are.  You barely notice hunger or thirst.  People walk by, planes fly overhead, dogs bark, the tide begins to creep toward your magnificent creation….. and you just keep working on your sand castle.

If you are a poet who devotes himself/herself to the creative life, then your poems are eventually read by others.  The hope is that readers and audiences will somehow share in the energy and excitement that you experienced during the actual writing of poem.  There is another level of joy when you connect with others, even if the poem is sad or serious in nature.  Since poetry often articulates extreme emotions, there is a feeling of connection and communication that occurs when we read a poem that expresses our deepest feelings.  It’s a kind of recognition.  Ah yes, the reader thinks, this poet knows exactly what I feel. Their heart has traveled down the same path as mine.  There’s a kind of intimacy in this connection.  And this is why certain poems last and transcend the boundaries of time culture.  The Greek poet Sappho, for example, wrote during the sixth century B.C.  Her poems remain only in fragments, yet they continue to be some of the greatest love poems ever written.  The following lines describe that initial dazzling feeling of wonder and amazement that only happens when we fall in love, and I hope it’s a feeling we all recognize:


Without warning

As a whirlwind

Swoops on an oak

Love shakes my heart


This article was previously published by The Post & Courier in January 2008.  

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