The Necessity of Poetry

It’s easy to say that poetry is important, especially for writers and readers, because this is something we’re supposed to believe is as true as the blue of the sky. Yet how important is it really? In a world full of things like war, starvation, and pollution, how much difference do words make? Can a poem stop genocide? Or is that asking too much? Of course there are different levels of importance. On which level does poetry exist?

I think these things often, perhaps because I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy thinking about whether writing — not the product, but the act — is revolutionary. Sometimes I say yes and other times I say that even thinking about it makes me some sort of privileged book nerd who’s cut off from reality. I’m certain that much of this thought is inspired by Adrienne Rich, who has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. More than any other poet, she’s the one who has made me think about words and power and what it means when those two things intersect. So I was (probably unnaturally) happy when I came across this article she wrote recently for The Guardian about the importance of poetry. I suppose it’s no surprise that Rich comes out on the side of poetry’s importance, yet it was a pleasure to read what she had to write on the subject.

There are all sorts of arguments against the importance of poetry (Rich knows them and brings them up in her article) — one of the largest being that people don’t buy, read, or understand it — yet it carries on in coffee houses and universities and on the internet. Despite its perceived uselessness in popular consciousness, good or bad, people keep writing it. Even here on LitKicks. For what purpose? There are millions of answers.

We often talk of poetry as though it were a proper noun — Poetry — a huge, abstract concept like Truth or Being. Like it is something that drives us because we are human and we must experience it because we need more proper nouns like Beauty and Art. And perhaps this is true, to some extent, but this is also why I found this passage in Rich’s article most interesting:

I hope never to idealise poetry – it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and C

13 Responses

  1. A Cut AboveOne thing I would
    A Cut Above

    One thing I would have to acknowledge is that poetry is rarified speak, in the same way that a t-bone is the better cut or a Rolls is the best-crafted vehicle. Is this important to me? Extremely. I have always had a concept of the sublime as a personal mythology. I have always thought it essential that there be a sublime, an ideal, a top standard that all is measured against. Perhaps that is the basis of Socrates’ philosophy, or my own way of looking at things.

    Is that overly elitist? Yes and no. To me the cut-off is not between those who are above and those who are below, but between those who seek or strive to be, and those who don’t. In a sense we could say that Shakespeare did a lot of speak, but in certain of his sonnets, he set a standard for himself and everyone else. In that sense, poetry is the paradigm.

    And while I live in a world of hamburger and Geo’s, my goal, my longing, is still for the cut above. Thank you Jameleh for this most excellent discussion. A couple of lines from Adrienne Rich’s article that really stand out (to me) are – “like the consciousness behind it, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness…but poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.”

  2. The Inspiration’s OriginThe
    The Inspiration’s Origin

    The Inspiration’s origin has perhaps something to do with the answer you seek. I have the personal belief that the importance of poetry is always completely subjectif, but that does not make its existence less real. Poetry that has been inspired by external events, be they a pretty flying cloud or some stupid cat or gruesome picture of a war victim or a starving child has to filter through the poet’s mind, sit in there sometimes for quite some time, ripening like an odd fruit before falling from the tree of its creator on the paper. There is no such thing as an original thought, generated purely within. Everything has been outside at some point, before being ingested that way, transformed sometimes to a point where its first shape is not recognizable anymore, perhaps mingling with other input as well. The only thing the poet adds are his feelings, his experience and his words.

    A first, admittedly small, subjective level of importance is probably reached here, the importance of the digested information transforming into pure thought. The fruit itself is magical, as it can be multiplied to infinite numbers, consumed by as many people as pick it up and read, offering up its bitter or sweet juice and distillating along with the original data (or what’s left of it) part of the poet’s way of thinking into each new mind, triggering feelings, reactions, inspiring or boring or leaving the person nearly untouched.

    How do you measure the importance of that kind of thought?

    Perhaps to the reader it is a symbolic quest for an interiorized form of beauty, seen through the eyes of another human being, who has the gift to share his thoughts and feelings through words. Some people can watch a sunrise and only see the surface of things. A poet’s view may delve deeper, as he has given it more thought; poets usually have an extreme sensitivity and very strong feelings. His poem about a sunrise will be full with his personal experience adding to the experience of the reader, intensifying the reader’s own emotional response, helping him to see part of what the poet perhaps saw.

    Or perhaps poetry is just another form of speech, narrow, more fokused on precise events and subjects, the way music is. But I think that it is never a mere toy.

    After all, how important is speech to mankind? How important is each language in the world?
    We already burn our bridges of communication with fellow humans, I would hate to see a world without poetry, another bridge gone to reach out to other minds…

  3. Art and CommunicationThat
    Art and Communication

    That word again. Communication. What is it about “communication” that is so (and it is) revolutionary.

    I don’t know anything about poetry. My poetry doesn’t suck; it deeply sucks. Or is that sucks deeply. Whatever.

    I have won prizes for poetry. This is patently absurd.

    This is not unlike featuring someone in BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS who cannot pound a nail or grow a decent pot plant.

    Nevertheless, the word — communication — remains fascinating.

    As is the term: revolution.

    Now, to poetry. I have just returned to my attic lair from the Lourve where Toni Morrison has been in very poetic ways challenging a variety of artists to turn their attention to “The Stranger.”

    Morrison means the refugee.

    The poets have been out in droves — attending this month-long series of museum-sponsored events — slaving away attentively.

    Personally, I would have no idea how to put her concepts into poetic form.

    But other people do. And many of them (most) are not poets at all. They’re painters and choreographers and dancers and filmmakers.

    Very few writers. I don’t know how that happened.

    I go not as a writer but as a filmmaker.

    Every artist there desires to learn and put what they create into a poetic form. You are either the stranger or you live among them.

    Is the poet just the poet. I think not. Today, I met many of them and they were dancers who spoke poetically (and in revolutionary ways) with their bodies.

    Thusly is poetry simply poetry. Or words. How can that be when it affects every other art form.

    I just spent some months with a group of young (brilliant) painters who call themselves “Tag Guerrillas.”

    They paint over commercial media “art” (satirizing it) replacing it with “real” art. Their “real” art is extraordinary.

    They film themselves doing this. The films are utterly compelling.

    It is art as warfare.

    They take their poems and they paint them and glue them and stencil them on billboards and walls.

    They have done this all over the world and have attacked both the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China.

    I want to write a book about them. I have filmed them. I have taken many photographs.

    It is poetry in action. What they do is breathtaking. I am simply le voyeur.

    They are always being arrested. They plan their art attacks with the precision of a military campaign.

    People stop on the street and stare and read the poetry.

    They recently attacked a museum that was once a German concentration camp.

    I can’t say which one but the Poles were not amused.

    I think the Internet has largely failed as an institution and it’s mainly a gateway to more consuming. The Internet is about and for consumers.

    Even the consumer of books.

    Sometimes especially books.

    Art on the Internet is safe. Le lame. It is hardly ever revolutionary.

    Much of the poetry here at Litkicks IS revolutionary. The poetry is where it’s at. The fact that it strikes such a nerve is exemplified by the numbers alone.

    I am afraid to put the poetry or any of the photographs or even my film of the Tag Guerillas on the Internet.

    Or anywhere.

    I am afraid to show this stuff to anyone.

    My name alone will attract the haters and the haters who get off on snide humiliation.

    None of whom are putting their poetry on walls.

    Or here for that matter.

    I have been up to my ears in this. Sometimes I think I am drowning in it, and Toni Morrison was a respite. Until she mentioned poetry.

    When she did, le epiphany.

    I realized that while their poetry and art on billboards is revolutionary, so is the communication they exhibit that exists between themselves. Relationships.

    Now, there’s your story.

    But how to tell it.

    One way would be just to slap in on the Internet much like the guerrilla attacking they themselves do.

    But if I were to do that I would be an accessory to cultural crimes because in one way or another I would be documenting the fact that I know who they are and where they are.






    Crime. Crime. Crime.



    The policia. Jail.



    Everything is fucking sex.

    I’m too old and too jaded for this. I don’t know that I have it in me to do one more revolution.

    I look at Toni Morrison and she’s OLDER than moi. The World At Large will crucify my ass. Again. Everywhere.

    “Barrus is a bad person with no morality or respect for authority.” Time magazine can eat me.

    The story is so good, the poetry so vibrant, the various authorities so pissed off, the visuals so compelling….

    I don’t know. To be. Out there. Or not to be. Out there. Tenir quelqu’un le bed dans l’eau.

    Poetry is the revolution and it will be televised on YouTube. Vivere ce n’est pas respirer c’est agir.

  4. Blowin’ in the Wind &
    Blowin’ in the Wind & Ohio, etc

    Blowin’ in the Wind was the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement and Ohio had everyone singing about the Kent State Massacre. Reggae music also has anthems about struggle so poetry can change the world when its channeled.

  5. And I think we miss the fact
    And I think we miss the fact that poetry includes all that music, such that when we include that music, and other music, poetry is terribly important to nearly everyone. It is revolutionary and risky and powerful, yet most people just thinnk of dry academy poetry and that which they were forced to learn about without adequate reason as to why they should. The connection between Yeats and the Foo Fighters doesn’t get made.

  6. poetry is lifepoetry isheart
    poetry is life

    poetry is
    heart sung


    never lie

    are not fugitives
    but the ones
    showing us the way
    to live
    is the sky so
    blue today
    and fear is
    just a word
    is today

  7. I am a fugitive. I exist
    I am a fugitive. I exist outside the nice, polite retsraints, and so does my work. There are as many different kinds of poets as there are paintings. I am a fugitive. A renegade. Their reins and their bitter bits would go into my mouth. And I dare not forget it for one, slow solitary moment of rest because there is no rest. No peace. No solitude. Only war. Only don’t get caught. I am a fugitive. And they would shut me down with their rules and silence me without a thought to it given that opportunity. They would incarcerate me and they are watching. Always watching. Waiting. I dare not stay in one place too long. They would muzzle me. I cannot afford to forget that or settle for loveliness. There is no loveliness. No grace. No flowers. No surrendering. Only indifference. Only walls. Only no you cannot do that. Only arrogance. I am a fugitive. I play now you see me now you don’t every day. I dare not let them get their claws into me or my work because they will because they can. I am a fugitive. I am always one step ahead of them and breathless with it. They are not unlike dogs at my heels and anyone who insists they are not there or that they are generous is dangerous, too. It is my job to outwit them. I will not be strangulated by their regulations. I am a fugitive and my crimes are many. But mainly my crime is one of disrespect and I am a fugitive. I live in a labyrinth of disguise and they want me to shut up in no uncertain terms. I am a fugitive: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand. ” — Picasso.

  8. PoetryIn my opinion, poetry

    In my opinion, poetry expresses things on all levels. No subject is off limits. Thing is…Poetry may express impressions in a way that prose is unlikely to touch.

    Poetry inspires, makes jokes, expresses nuances of existence in the mind and in dreams. Poetry may be written in any form. Some modern poetry reads like a story–with different punctuation and glimpses into the psyche of the speaker. Poetry can also horrify and grip the reader in different ways. Some of the most spiritual poetry is said in some of the simplest ways and reaches out to ones soul. Poetry may inform and confuse–sometimes in a paradox–both at once. Many songs are poetry and stand on their lyrics by themselves. Music and beat adds to the poetry. Poetry reaches a person where s/he has being.

  9. Poetry is not LifeI couldn’t
    Poetry is not Life

    I couldn’t agree with Rich more. To take poetry too seriously is a consequence of taking one’s self too seriously. This is absolutely a result of privilege.

    Poetry may be a means of expression, a conduit for the sharing of human experience. People are moved by it because they feel that they are truly communicating. It is pathologically narcissistic to think that the writer is special or particularly sensitive to experience. Writers are merely lucky enough to possess a linguistic talent to convey what everyone else feels, or they have studied hard to master the craftsmanship to reach the same end- hopefully both. If that weren’t true all writers would be writing only for each other and their little group of “enlightened” friends. Oh wait. . . that’s what is going on in many places in most Western countries, isn’t it? 😉

    The post asks if a poem can stop genocide. No. But a poem can be a tool in the communication (read propaganda) that will ultimately lead to its end. Isn’t this what Rich said?

    It really would be nice to think that post-genocide poetry would prevent the repeat of such an event. But that’s not happened.

    Does that mean a better poem will make this happen? I’d love to believe this, but I think it’s a silly romantic thought to overestimate the power of art of any kind over human nature. Hitler was one of the greatest art-lovers ever.

    Is that how we should judge the quality of a poem, by its transformative power within a society? Is all revolutionary writing poetry (no matter how poorly it’s crafted by traditional standards)? Is poetry that doesn’t change the world not really poetry?

    What I don’t understand is your statement about “whether writing- the act, not the product- is revolutionary”. I don’t see how the act of writing could be revolutionary at all. Even in the most conservative sense, the act wouldn’t be revolutionary for single individual until it became a product (i.e. created a consequence of some sort that is manifested by behavior). I cannot understand how it could be otherwise unless one subscribes to an idea of some kind of literary god- akin to how the reciting of a mantra changes the universe because of the specific sound waves supposed preternatural powers.

    There are so many questions embedded in your question. Thank you for setting my mind in motion.

  10. beatI don’t really understand

    I don’t really understand the inner drive humans have to create something, but I think poetry is the last resort, stripped-down manifestation of that drive. If you don’t have lumber & tools, canvas and paint, granite & chisel, a musical instrument, or anything else, you can almost always get something to write with and something to write on. Or just make it up in your head.

    Add a hollow body acoustic guitar and you have folk songs.

    Close to that is hip-hip, where you could find old turntables and vinyl that didn’t cost much, and you could scratch out sounds; sample riffs right off the vinyl.

    I remember that scene from the short 1959 film Pull My Daisy where Ginsberg and Corso are in someone’s small apartment, just looking out the window, excited about sharing their new poetry with each other, and riffing off the cars driving by. If you were “beat” you probably didn’t have a piano so you couldn’t be Beethoven or Debussy, but as long as you could recite your poem for someone, you could be Whitman or Coleridge.

    The reason I describe poetry this way, but not prose, is that in prose, you generally need a steady supply of paper and a somewhat more stable environment; whereas, with poetry, you can get by on an envelope or a wall.

    Does any of this make sense to you poets out there?

  11. Yes. This makes good sense.
    Yes. This makes good sense. Envelopes. Paper grocery bags hold a lot of poems. The paper isn’t that bad. You don’t want to see my arms. My wife made me swear to stop writing poems on my skin but I lie a lot.

  12. Sorry- I think it makes no
    Sorry- I think it makes no sense. Poetry is not “few words” by definition. Sounds like if the question really is genuine, you may want to look at some poetry you didn’t get in high school or online. 🙂

  13. I see what you mean, ren.kat,
    I see what you mean, ren.kat, and thanks. Yes, the question is genuine. I guess I was forgetting about some of the epic poems that required a vast array of knowledge to compose.

    Note: I wasn’t implying that anyone who strings words together could be as good a poet at Coleridge or Whitman. I just meant that of all the talents a person might have, poetry seems like the least cumbersome to actually pursue. Like, when I first heard Eric Clapton play guitar, I wanted to do that, but first I had to get a guitar. When I first read about movie-makers using stop-motion animation and special effects, I wanted to do that, but first I had to get an 8mm movie camera, and later on, a camcorder.

    But I am probably not giving enough credit to those who go to college to study literary style and structure, meter, rhyme schemes, not to mention learning about ancient mythology to write Ozymandias or translate the Iliad and the Odyssey or to re-tell it.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!