Guest Feature – Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry

by Nickole Brown

(Found this on BookPage, excellent piece on Poetry)


5. Because it’s unnecessary.

Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown.

Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.

For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”

3. Because it fosters community.

Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.

2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.

I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.

1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.

People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.