Why is poetry important?
I’m going to answer a slightly different question: why is poetry important right now? Because it really is. We are seeing all around us the direct impact that lies have on society. Words are killing people, whether through covid disinformation or conspiracy theories that lead to violence or whatever else. People are using words willy-nilly out there, and it’s causing harm and destruction and confusion. So maybe poetry isn’t the answer, exactly, but it’s a potentially powerful response to these circumstances. It’s an art form that’s based on saying true things, symbolically and rhythmically, so we can to some extent bypass the intellectual mind, the mental blocks that stop us from being able to understand each other, and communicate directly through the heart.
Poetry has been very much intellectualized. There’s a lot of gatekeeping around it, for both readers and writers. Every time I send a new poem to my mom, for example, she makes sure to preface her response with some variation of “I don’t understand poetry, but…” There’s a fear there that her interpretation or experience of the work is going to be wrong.
But the things is, even I don’t always fully understand the poems I write. They’re not intellectual exercises for me. Maybe they are for some other poets. But when I read a poem to someone, I don’t need or want them to solve it or figure it out or understand it. I just want them to listen and then feel something. Maybe it has something to do with the way poetry is taught in high school? I remember so much deconstruction. What is the author trying to say, what is the function of this metaphor, etc. Makes you think that a poem works like a machine. But it’s not a machine. It’s a magic spell, or some kind of organism.
What I didn’t understand early on is that in poetry, meaning stacks. If a word in a poem triggers a feeling in you, or makes you remember something, that meaning goes into the poem. And in my head canon at least, that meaning becomes part of the poem, even if it’s a meaning that only you understand. So the more poems are read and shared and experienced, the more meaningful they become. It’s like that game Katamari, where the ball of objects grows bigger and bigger and bigger, picking up everything in its path. All that gatekeeping does is restrict the enjoyment and proliferation of poetry to a group of people who are supposedly in the know. But nobody really knows. I think poetry tries to put words to the great mysteries of life. And nobody has those answers.