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Why Poetry Matters

Curtis Bisbee

Last month, on the drive home from school, my daughter recited a haiku entitled “Cruelty”:

“The egg is so cold. / Mother hen has gone away. / Why is the world cruel?”

Startled momentarily out of the mundane afternoon ritual of backpacks and seatbelts, I asked her for the author’s name. It had been a hard day and at 38, I still had no answer for the question the author posed.

“I wrote it!” Anna proclaimed.

Macomb’s public grade schools have “writing workshops” and our children are falling in love with poetry. This was evident when Sandra Taylor invited me into her third grade class last year for a week-long lesson on poetry. The students loved the sounds and tastes of words, and their similes and metaphors leapt imaginatively off the page.

I told those students what I tell the college students I’m lucky enough to teach: poetry matters. April is National Poetry month, a wonderful distinction, but poetry should be part of our rich, daily lives.

I want people to write poetry, to read poetry and to share it daily. Coming back to the question my daughter’s haiku posed, “Why is the world cruel?”-- I was able to tell Anna that she can find the answers in poetry, but she’ll also find the astounding wonder that simultaneously breaks us, again and again, and then refills us.

Poetry asks us to look at, examine, and take within what is difficult. It propels with imagery, roots us in our bodies, and moves us with its sensual sounds, conscious rhythms and musicality. It ignites the imagination. Poetry matters because it’s a package deal—encompassing body, mind and our complex, ever shifting emotions.

Poetry matters because it’s accessible and connective. I came to it through my mother’s melodious voice, my father’s collections, my wonderful high school and college English teachers, and the local library.

Now, there are poetry apps, and students are always excited by websites like the Poetry Foundation’s where they can hear and see poets read their work. One student reverently said to me, “I got to listen to Jane Kenyon read! Jane Kenyon! Her own voice from 1988.” It was clear that Kenyon, her exact words, her hued lines and carved stanzas spoke to this student in a profound way. I wanted to press my finger to this tenuous connection between a dead poet and a wildly young apprentice writer. To this student, Kenyon’s words were very much alive.

Credit Rich Egger
Barb Harroun

As a poor college student myself, in Dr. John Mann’s Poetry workshop, I was required to memorize a new poem each week. Mann, a brilliant professor and poet, wanted us to live with poetry and to carry it out of the classroom. At the age of twenty, it became clear to me as I worked arduously, whispering poems aloud as I drove, walked, and worked; poems matter because words matter.

Words are a currency of underestimated worth. We have these wonderful, flawed bodies, and we are often isolated in them, alone in our thoughts, our hearts lonely and full of longing. How do we connect? How do we articulate horrendous injustice and inspire others to act? How do we bring the contours and depth of love and loss to light? Words. Words artfully chosen, beaded into lines, consciously turned or enjambed, building stanzas, little rooms we walk into and walk out of transformed.

Poems matter because the act of reading and writing them changes us and enables us to see ourselves, and the world, anew. Poetry matters most to me because it renews my hope endlessly that the experience of poetry changes us for the better—opening us, startling us awake, giving us new eyes, widening our world, connecting us to others, and always reminding us of the weight, the power, of words.

Surely, we could all benefit from this reminder daily.

Barbara Harroun is an instructor of composition and creative writing at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.