Why Write Poetry?

Psychologist Rollo May wrote in his book The Courage to Create that:
“…if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.”

Although we may be willing to give “listening to our own beings” a try in writing essays and memoir, something keeps many of us from engaging in that same level of honesty and commitment in writing poetry. Maybe we don’t feel up to the demands of the art. We may feel, therefore, that if we devote ourselves to writing poems, we are only being dilettantes. We may worry that once we find and articulate our deepest feelings and insights as poetry has us do, those feelings and perceptions will demand we change our lives. We need to figure out how to address this situation by coming to believe in the power of poetry to not only indicate what our beings demand, but to help us do it. If we learn to honor our need and ability to write poetry, all of our writing will benefit.

Acknowledge and Celebrate Your Poetic Intelligence:

In 1983, Harvard educator Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind, The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a groundbreaking work that argues for the recognition of human competencies that are separate intelligences in addition to the mathematical and verbal ones currently accepted and measured by IQ tests. The first intelligence Gardner discusses is the linguistic intelligence. This is the competency of the poet. Gardner trusts that a poet will best describe this intelligence, and he quotes poet Stephen Spender:

The poet above all else, is a person who never forgets certain sense impressions which he has experienced and which he can relive again and again as though with all their original freshness.

Gardner writes that the poet uses particular core operations of language: sensitivity to the meaning of words, sensitivity to the order among words, sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms, inflections and meters of words, and sensitivity to language’s ability to excite, convince, stimulate, convey information or to please. A poet knows that how something is said is part of the message, part of what is being said, often the most important part. A poet works on the sounds and words in a poem until they communicate the form of a newly discovered insight, glimpse a mystery or understanding. The words then capture the emotions that brought to life the desire to write the poem.

This intelligence is a hard one to value in a sound-bite culture that packages its messages to make target markets into one-size-fits-all cultures, eager to purchase and consume, and fills the air around us with noise to keep us from locating our own specific yearnings, especially if they have nothing to do with buying. It is an intelligence hard to value in a culture that embraces, as poet Stephen Dunn writes in his book walking light, “the capitalistic ethic of acquisition rather than contemplation, the celebration of things rather than soul.”

But more and more, among writers, therapists, theologians and scholars, a correction to this problem is emerging. Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way , David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused and Deena Metzger’s Writing for Your Life are books I’ve enjoyed on the topic of valuing contemplation as an extraordinary competency. We often must search for support in making this intelligence and our practice of it important to us, because our society as a whole has not supported us in valuing this way of being and knowing the world. We are constantly asked to do, to buy, to go, to behave, to agree, to imitate, and to envy. What product can be sold by asking us “to treasure our own insights?”

In order to empower ourselves to write poetry, we must refuse to see poetry as merely verse or ornament. We must refuse to see our linguistic intelligence as inferior or unworthy; we must refuse to let ourselves believe our feelings are inconsequential, or worse, that they are wrong. In an essay called, “The Social Function of Poetry,” T. S. Eliot (who, by the way, is the poet who named April the cruelest month in “The Waste Land“) said about the poet:

…he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore teaching them something about themselves. But he is not merely a more conscious person than the others; he is also individually different from other people, and from other poets too, and can make his readers share consciously in new feelings, which they had not experienced before. That is the difference between the writer who is merely eccentric or mad and the genuine poet. The former may have feelings, which are unique, but which cannot be shared, and are therefore useless; the latter discovers new variations of sensibility, which can be appropriated by others.

Through its practice, we come to understand “that poetry is a form of knowledge and that the poet’s mode of thinking is a valid means of understanding the mortal world…” (Don Cameron Allen, The Moment of Poetry)
Reading poems (there are links later on in this article to many poems you might enjoy) is essential for filling yourself with the sounds of contemplation and the search for insight and knowing. It is a way of getting yourself to the place where you, too, are ready to speak and think that way.

Lists: A Simple Way to Begin and Surprise Yourself Later With Poems

When I think of poetry writing practice, I think of the way people practice the skills of athletics without taking on the complexities of the game or sport. I think of REI’s flagship building in Seattle, which has an indoor mountain in the store for people to learn and practice climbing. I think of driving ranges for golfers and batting cages. Here are opportunities to practice parts of the real thing without the need to worry about other parts that the learner might not feel up to sustaining. I think that conjuring images for poems from exercises is a practice that offers writers opportunities to build foundations for future poems without worrying, almost without knowing, that poem-building is going on. Concentrate on the exercise and read the results after a day or so and you will see the connections between the images that you couldn’t have cultivated if you were trying to draw those connections. Showing your beginnings from exercises to a trusted reader can often help you see the connections more quickly.

In his well-known poem, “Things to Do Around a Lookout,” poet and naturalist Gary Snyder lists things he could do while working for the Forest Service as a lookout for forest fires. He spent a lot of time alone in the small, isolated quarters, and his poem details life there by way of listing actions he could take and objects he could use: airing out musty forest service sleeping bags, bathing in snow melt, the star book and the rock book, oolong souchong tea, and putting salt out for the ptarmigan are among my favorites from the list.

Many poems are lists. Many lists survive inside poems. See Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Check out page nine here to read William Stafford’s “Things I Learned Last Week.” The very poetic Declaration of Independence is a combination of lists.

As an exercise, listing gives the poet practice using exact names and characteristics. It gives the poet an opportunity to dredge up subjects by coming at them slant.

Here are some list ideas to get you started with your own list making, that can later shape into a poem:
7 or more things you see outside a window right now that someone else looking might not notice
7 or more jobs you enjoy imagining yourself having and details of what you would wear to each of them
7 or more things that are in your refrigerator and why they are there
7 or more gifts you have been given, when and by whom
7 or more occasions upon which you wished you could disappear–name names, places, and actions by you or others
7 or more lies you have told, to whom and when
7 or more compliments you have given to whom and when
7 or more ways you would curse someone who has angered you
7 or more ways you have been complimented and by whom
7 people you think of right now and why you are thinking of them
7 or more songs you know and what they make you think of in your life–people, places, events.
7 titles of more lists you could make

Choose a list and draft a poem. You’ll be celebrating that the way of coming to your poetic material without worrying about what you might be writing about helps exercise your poetic intelligence.


Sheila Bender is a poet, essayist, author and an IAJW Council Member. Among her books is Writing Personal Poetry, which you purchase as an ebook through IAJW. Sheila offers an inspiring IAJW online class, From Journal Entry to Personal Essay. You can start this self-guided online course anytime and be guided on how to turn a journal entry into a personal essay!