In Our Words

Why Do We Need Poetry?
Why Do We Need Poetry?

Why do we need poetry?

by Cari Barbour

Regardless of age, gender or geography, the usual response to poetry is universal: audible groans, grumbling, sometimes a look of fear. Maybe this originates from traumatic poetry experiences as a child or from a mistaken belief that we're not going to 'get it.' I think the 'it' is life and poetry's attempt to mirror back these moments is something we can all understand.

When we're young, much of our world is poetry: nursery rhymes, songs, jump rope chants. Somewhere along the way, when we begin to "tie the poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it" (as Billy Collins so eloquently writes), we lose some of the magic of the words. We become so focused on finding the right answer that accepting the many shades of ambiguity in a line can be unsettling. Maybe we want a 'hack' for everything, an easier way to see straight through to the part that we need to know. But I don't think poetry works that way.

Reading poetry requires a willingness to pay attention to the smallest details. The choice of a word, the placement of a line and the purpose of one mark of punctuation--they all matter. It is a deliberate craft that can hinge on a breath. Reading can be a slow process, but it is worth it; the words can help us see the world in new and surprising ways.

Sometimes, poems are a window into ourselves. They offer us a way of understanding that we are not alone in our experiences, that someone else in the big wide world has felt what we've felt. With students, poetry offers a safe way to talk about ideas that might seem too abstract to tackle. Talking about our own pain through the lens of someone else's words can feel more safe. Poems can start a conversation and bring us together. In different parts of the world right now, poetry is the language of protest and the language that unites us.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote: "I rhyme to see myself. To set the darkness echoing.' Each time we read a poem, we send that echo out again and it comes back in new ways. If you haven't found that one, keep reading until you do. Maybe you're a secret poet, keeping all your words to yourself in a notebook or a computer file. Even if you never share it with anyone, writing poetry is a way of reminding yourself what you've lived. Your voice is individual and powerful. The more you use it, the stronger it will become.