April 16, 2020
All art is a means of expression, no matter what form it takes.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "poetry is a literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm." Poetry intensifies. In some ways, writing poetry is like making of a fine sauce. You add the ingredients and then you add the heat of time and attention to draw out the unneeded water and make all the flavors more intense. Poetry has an intense flavor that prose generally doesn't manage, and that intensity can make poetry valuable for a number of reasons.
The Poetic Compulsion
Poetry is one of those things people write because they feel a need to do it. Not all poetry is written with an eye to publication. For many, it's a way to work through feelings or explore new ideas. For some, it's a writing prompt or exercise. And those are completely valid reasons to write poetry. As with any art form, the creation of the art is sufficient reason to do it. As with any art done privately, the real reason for writing poetry isn't "because I'm good at it." I wrote a whole journal full of incredibly bad poetry in college. I still have that journal, and I'm not being modest. It was truly bad. It was the kind of bad that can actually make me cringe. It is "dad joke" level of bad. But the writing of it helped me through the swirl of change and emotion that typifies college. It was therapeutic. No one is ever going to buy any of that poetry (honestly, no one is even going to see it if it is up to me). But the writing of it helped bring me to where I am now, if only by getting me through emotionally rough times.
The Magnifying Glass of Poetry
Most of us aren't writing sprawling epic poetry. Instead, we're scrawling snapshots from life. They may be snapshots of something amazing and beautiful like the birth of a child. Or they may be snapshots from a particularly tough time. I wrote poetry when my husband was very ill as a way to travel through those moments, to speak what I was afraid to say out loud, and to hold onto hope in the midst of the stress. Poetry can catch lightning in a bottle by letting us remember the emotion of an experience long after time has begun to soften the memory.
Like Yoga, Poetry Flexes
Because poetry is so focused on a moment and because it is usually so short, it forces us to really examine the moment and our facility with language in capturing it. Poetry is crafted word by word. Poets, above everyone else, understand that a poem won't work with almost the right word. Instead, they simply take the time to find the right word. And that slowing down and care makes us understand the language in which we communicate. We carry the skills from poetry into everything else.
I don't do yoga and I'm not a particularly stretchy person. But I love stretching when it comes to language. I like playing games with how sentences work. I like digging for better and better words, phrasing, and figures of speech. I like coming up with my own way of writing that grows out of my own vision of the world. I've talked about it before, but we become better writers when we find new ways to look at old things. If I look at an apple and I see a round, red fruit, I'm taking the easy way. I'm not being at all flexible. If I look at an apple and I see a heart, not because it is red (though that helps) but because an apple is full of hope. An apple is a receptacle for the future because it contains the seeds of trees that have not yet grown. So I may look at an apple and see a writer's heart: so sweet, so full of future promise, so easily bruised. And when I do that, I'm seeing like a poet.
It doesn't matter a bit if I write a poem that is never published (and I don't say that lightly since I make a living writing and don't invest a lot of time in unpublishable results), because the act of writing a poem strengthens my writing and my emotions. It lets me explore words, thoughts, and my own experience. I am a better writer for having allowed myself to be a relatively crappy poet. So, give yourself permission to do the same. You may also find the benefits are well worth the effort.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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