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Why is poetry important?
This has always been a difficult question for me—with poetry or art. There’s importance to creator and significance to audience, so I’ll try to answer both. Obviously one often writes poems out of personal need and urgency, whether it’s a way of understanding ourselves or the world around us. There’s also an element of attachment to making art—a secondary attachment that is not a mother or a lover—the oneness/connection felt while writing or painting and, later, the connectedness of reading out, sharing, and publishing.
Sometimes it’s an important message we send in a bottle—an artifact to the future, or a small comfort provided to a stranger who might pick a book of poems from a used bookstore shelf in 2050. Along with reaching strangers with my ghost words, I wouldn’t mind being immortalized in that musty book and have my art work hanging in the dead museum—proof I was here and I mattered. So yes, it’s about connecting with others AND mattering, here, there, now, or some time. Poetry defies time even while marking it.
As for importance to society, poetry, as traditionally defined by academia, is a fairly elitist activity, written and appreciated by few. One can say society needs poetry to remind us we are human, or we need it to converse with, comfort, instruct, and connect with each other. That has often meant three poets reading to 40 other poets. While this, in itself, isn’t a bad thing, the exclusivity hasn’t always enabled poetry to reach its full potential as an expressive medium or way to build communities.
I see that changing right now as poetry finds its way into mainstream culture via certain phenomena like Slam Poetry and social media. We are, in America, now seeing poetry as social action and protest. It’s exciting to see, in my lifetime, art as a vehicle for social change and political action, something vital in these dark times. It’s the stuff I’ve mostly only read about in history books, occurring, usually in some faraway country. I hope this phenomenon proves to be enduring.