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Why Poetry Matters

November 17th, 2009

“Poetry doesn’t matter to most people,” writes Jay Parini, poet, novelist and professor of English at Middlebury College, Vermont. “Most people don’t write it, don’t read it, and don’t have any idea why anybody would spend valuable time doing such a thing.”

There are people who appreciate poetry, of course, although they tend to be “book people,” those who already have a long-term commitment to literature and a history of reading it, teaching it, publishing and marketing it, sometimes writing it – the very people who read BC BOOKWORLD, in fact.

Although the book world feels relatively large when you’re in it, there are few individuals outside this quite small specialized community who are willing to make the effort to confront the perceived challenges poetic language presents. People who might read several novels a year seldom, if ever, read poetry. “Book people” know that serious contemporary poetry is not always difficult to understand, despite what most people think. But this is not the prevailing attitude in the educated public at large, who tend to see poetry as about as comprehensible, say, as algebra, and nowhere near as useful.

This is not exactly news, I know, but anyone who makes an effort to sell or distribute poetry soon has it rubbed home, in no uncertain terms. One well-known bookseller in Victoria recently said to me, when I presented my new book of poetry to him for consideration, “No thanks Ellery! I like your little book, but I can’t sell poetry and really don’t have room with all the other little books that just sit there taking up space on the shelf. If your name was Leonard Cohen, I’d say ‘come on in!’ If you wanna sell books, for heaven’s sake, write prose!”

“Poetry is a kind of meditation that slows me down and brings me back to myself.” (Allen Ginsburg)

Persuading people to try writing poetry is much more of a tough sell than getting them to read it. In my experience, suggesting such a thing puts most of them instantly in touch with an acute sense of inadequacy around their creativity in general, and the writing of poetry in particular. They back off quickly, and demur all over the place, saying things like, “Oh god no! I can’t write; especially not poetry!” They immediately assume it will be hard, and that the result will be awkward, probably embarrassing, at best. Few understand how much fun it can be, and how relatively easy it is to do – if approached properly, free of judgment and critical feedback.

Most of us start out in life with a creative spark, and a delight in reading and writing poetry (as young children often demonstrate) but have the delight snuffed out by adults “teaching” us about it. But in fact, writing poetry is not some esoteric pursuit, which has to adhere to rigid forms or criteria. It is a craft and a skill and a creative pleasure available to us all. Unfortunately, in this clamorous culture of ours, there is little interest in the creation of a space where the quiet, heartfelt voice of poetry can be heard.

“The interaction with a particular poem becomes a rite of passage from one stage of awareness of self to another, with the poem as the facilitator of guide during the process.” (Janet Rice)

So why bother writing poetry anyway? Particularly in the face of the pervasive indifference of the culture, which most people have unconsciously absorbed. There are, of course, many excellent reasons why one might wish to consider such an esoteric pursuit, virtually none of which are ever taught or expressed at home or in school. The language of poetry provides a way of expressing the inexpressible, through the use of metaphor particularly. It allows us to at least attempt to come to terms with and to articulate the deepest, most complex aspects of our life; it provides a language adequate to our experience. “The language of poetry can, I believe, save us,” Jay Parini writes. “It can ground us in our own spiritual and moral realities, teaching us how to speak about our lives and how- indeed – to live them.”

Writing poetry doesn’t have to be a daunting intellectual challenge, one that challenges our fragile faith in our creativity. To repeat: it can be fun! A very high level of creative fun – once you free yourself of your tired old list of inhibiting should’s and should not’s inherited from academia.

Unfortunately, even poetry writing courses offered at university appear to stifle, rather than enhance, creativity. This has been the experience of so many students who have been “turned off” by such courses that it sometimes seems almost to be the norm. The creative spirit of students tends to wilt rather than blossom under the discouraging impact of criticism, judgment and grading typical of such programs. And the perceived audience for university-trained poets is not the general reading public, but rather a specialized audience of academics, critics, other poets, publishers of small literary magazines and an elite few eccentrics outside of this tight little intellectual universe.

Write for yourself – not for publication

The experience of writing poetry not intended for publication, free of the pernicious effect of the internalized judge or critic, is where the true enlivening joy of the process tales place. If you want to write poetry and enjoy yourself, my suggestion is to write for yourself; write your truth and do so with feeling, allow it to flow down the page so that it becomes something other than prose. If you can do that, you are writing poetry. Just make sure to tell your own inner critic or judge to bugger off because you’re going to have some fun with language.

“It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” (Robert Southey)

Two of my favourite poetry-writing courses, both of which will be offered in 2010, are “Hands-On Poetry” (a weekend workshop) and “Poetry & Popcorn” (a day of Haiku-writing.) Both include exercises designed to quickly lead you toward building confidence in your writing and experiencing the pleasure writing poetry can bring, in a supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere. If you love words, there is no better way to express that love than by writing poetry – the language of the spirit and of the heart.

Ellery Littleton’s teaches poetry writing workshops at Royal Roads University in Victoria, and The Haven Institute on Gabriola Island. His most recent book of poetry, “Riverwalk” – a poem a day for a year – is available online at

Essay Date: Summer 09

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