In Defense of Poetry


Tess Kovach

Tess Kovach lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

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64 Responses

  1. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Interesting post. Poetry seems to be one of the harder things to teach especially at a high school level because politics makes you go around all the good stuff unless you go to an expensive private school or live in a school district filled with really progressive parents. There is also the association and stereotype of overwrought high school students (guilty as charged). One of my favorite poems is the Burning of the Books by Bertlolt Brecht.

    The Burning of the Books
    by Bertolt Brecht

    When the Regime commanded that books with harmful
    Should be publicly burned and on all sides
    Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
    To the bonfires, a banished
    Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the
    Burned, was shocked to find his
    Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
    On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power
    Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my
    Always reported the truth? And here you are:
    Treating me like a liar! I command you:
    Burn me!

    The poem has the benefit of being darkly funny. We know the historical event, the Nazi book burning of unacceptable literature and we see a poet’s horrified reaction that the Nazis did not consider him dangerous enough to burn.

    One of my other favorite poems is Communist by John Berryman:

    ‘O tell me of the Russians, Communist, my son!
    Tell me of the Russians, my honest young man!’
    ‘They are moving for the people, mother; let me alone,
    For I’m worn out with reading and want to lie down.’

    ‘But what of the Pact, the Pact, Communist, my son?
    What of the Pact, the Pact, my honest young man?’
    ‘It was necessary, mother; let me alone,
    For I am worn out with reading and want to lie down.’

    ‘Why are they now in Poland, Communist, my son?
    Why are they now in Poland, my honest young man?’
    ‘For the people of Poland, mother; let me alone,
    For I’m worn out with reading and want to lie down.’

    ‘But what of the Baltic States, Communist, my son?
    What of the Baltic States, my honest young man?’
    ‘Nothing can be proven, mother; let me alone,
    For I’m worn out with reading and want to lie down.’

    ‘O I fear for your future, Communist, my son!
    I fear for your future, my honest young man!’
    ‘I cannot speak or think, mother; let me alone,
    For I’m sick at my heart and I want to to lie down.’

    I think the emotional heatbreak is very real but I wonder if this poem is lost on people who are largely unaware of student-lefty politic during the 1930s and how Stalin caused many young idealists to become disillusioned with politics. The poem has become more something to be appreciated by political and history junkies and people with an overly romantic fondness for the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Echoes of Lord Randall in that, did you catch it?
      And from that you get the nodding reference to poison.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      One of the poetry modules my wife teaches is getting students to analyze the lyrics to one of their favorite songs, using the mental toolkit they developed working on poetry.

      Some songs are surprisingly deep. Many students get surprised at how many are shallow.

      Admittedly, she’s also been known to use The Ballad of Eddie Praeger when covering ballads in general…

      (This all led, hilariously, to my wife dressing a student down over rap because he didn’t know the origins of rap, the etymology of the word, the history of rap, or how it related to poetry, literature, and music in the US. I got told by another teacher that my wife, all 5 foot nothing white geeky librarian type, went absolutely ballistic and schooled a 17 year old rapper wanna-be on the history, influential figures, and arc of rap in the United States. I’d imagine it was akin to being savaged badly by a duck).Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    Poetry is a refined art of the soul, whether it comes with music or with laughter.
    No wordsmith can fail to yearn for it — the sharp brittleness of a knife, or a carcass with all the fat pulled off and away.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    I’ve always been a poor consumer of poetry, too short of attention span and lacking in depth of comprehension I suspect; but Kipling* can still make shake my bones.

    *And yes I know he was a colonialist racist etc…Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:

      “Have you news of my boy Jack?”
      Not this tide.
      “When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
      Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

      “Has any one else had word of him?”
      Not this tide.
      For what is sunk will hardly swim,
      Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

      “Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
      None this tide,
      Nor any tide,
      Except he did not shame his kind —
      Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

      Then hold your head up all the more,
      This tide,
      And every tide;
      Because he was the son you bore,
      And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

    • Avatar Murali in reply to North says:

      Wait, I thought “White Man’s Burden” was supposed to be ironic.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

        Just change “white” to “woke” and do some other light word substitution for dealing with the shitlord hordes and it’s a perfect poem for the current year.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Murali says:

        I keep out of those defenses, I prefer not to debate the matter- plenty of artists in the past (and present) had deplorable ethics and morals. Taken at face value “White Man’s Burden” is horrifically racist and colonialist. That doesn’t keep it from being a rip roaringly well written poem- just a well written poem with a really outdated and immoral message.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to North says:

          When I first read it, I thought the sarcasm was pretty explicit. Well, whatever. Also, someone who meant White man’s burden literally does not jive as being the same person who could write the Miracle of Purun BhagatReport

          • Avatar North in reply to Murali says:

            I agree with you, truth be told, but I don’t subscribe to the idea of analyzing the works of peoples from past eras by todays moral understandings so I don’t participate in those debates.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

              That’s what makes historic fiction a challenge. As the famous opening of the Go-Between notes, the “past is a foreign country”. People really did perceive things differently in the past and their way of looking at and understanding the world is very strange by modern standards. When your writing historic fiction, you either make it about a bunch of basically modern people in the past or the characters come across as too alien. Trying to get a balance right is hard work.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Yes I can’t even imagine.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                The best example of historical fiction done right is from Canada, the Murdoch Mysteries. Its a cop show in late 19th and early 20th century Toronto. They are starting to slip a bit in latter seasons but the early and mid-seasons did show that people thought differently in the past. Our protagonist, Detective William Murdoch is an intellectually curious man but he is also a devote Roman Catholic with a 19th century Catholic’s opinion on things like pornography. He also has no moral problems with guilty people hanging.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq says:

                I will have to check it out.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Not having problems with guilty* people hanging is not a peculiar 19th century affectation.

                How small must your bubble be if you don’t encounter people who honestly and sincerely believe that murderers ought to be repaid in kind?

                *particularly if that guilt is of a crime like murder.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        Ironic in the sense that he’s saying “It’s an awful lot of trouble, and the reward isn’t much, is it?”

        The blame of those ye better,
        The hate of those ye guard

        It’s the same complaint he makes in Tommy [1]

        For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
        But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;

        But he’s not denying that the burden exists. Or that

        Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
        Half-devil and half-child.

        is an accurate description of the ungrateful people that the British Empire is doing its best to rule in an enlightened fashion.

        1. And it’s no coincidence that the other Tommy’s father was a soldier.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

      s Orwell wrote (intelligently as hell, as usual), Kipling was a good bad poet.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Yeah, that’s pretty much it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I can’t help but disagree with some of what Orwell wrote, but it’s apt and clear even so.

        There’s a use for lyrical poetry, for the description of the commonplace or even trite, but done so well as to elevate even the dandelions on the side of the road. (And a very different thing than Thoreau’s praising of the swamp, the elevation of that dark and dismal space that reeks and chitters with life).

        I’ve decided to try my hand at some bad love poetry (it’s generally not a genre I favor) — luckily I’ve folded it into a larger story, so as to have some excuse for inflicting such on my audience.

        Any excuse to pick up a pen, am I right?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Its amazing that Orwell hasn’t become a target for certain quarters of the present day Left. He evidenced a lot of hatred for the ancestors of the Social Justice Leftists and would have a lot of words to say about them. Orwell would be one of those Leftists like Hitchens who would see them as dupes for the Islamists.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    Poetry has cadence and meter for the same reason that church has hymns.

    “Shelly…saw poetry as binding the author and the reader with a greater sense of empathy and morality…”

    And what better way to do that than with a shared chant?Report

  5. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Part of the problem is we expect certain conventions. We expect sentences to have a beginning and an end. We expect a fully fledged noun and verb, an object and a subject. We are so entirely used to reading in the prose form that the formula for writing we are most familiar with looks lopsided and half-bare without all the padding that has comforted us and guided us in more traditional forms of writing.

    I think I understand what you are aiming for here, but this simply isn’t right. Most poetry is constructed of perfectly grammatical sentences. Poetry sometimes employs some unusual syntax (see the Walt Whitman you quote), but all the parts are still there. And the syntax of many poems is bog standard. Take a look at the Langston Hughes poem you quoted. The grammar is utterly unremarkable. The Gwendolyn Brooks poem uses some non-standard grammar, but this is because it uses African-American Vernacular English, not because it is poetry. The only other distinctively “poetic” syntax I see in any of these is the exclamation in the Emily Dickinson. Similarly your introduction to the Hughes has

    Nearly eliminate connecting words, half of the article adjectives, mandatory punctuation, unspecific modifiers…

    But the Hughes has all the connecting words one would expect, and plenty of punctuation–certainly the mandatory bits. Indeed, take the punctuation out and it would be an unintelligible mess. I’m not sure what you mean by “article adjectives.” My guess is you mean what a linguist would call an attributive adjective. Of the nine clauses in the Hughes, four of them have attributive adjectives. This is hardly heavy on the modifiers, but neither is it remarkably light.

    I think what you aiming for is to point out that poetry has some distinctive stylistic conventions that differ from prose, and these take some getting used to. This is a perfectly fair point. It looks to me like you had the commendable intention of being specific about what are these conventions, but missed.

    (Oh, and you characterized Paradise Lost as an anthology. You might want to revisit that.)Report

  6. Avatar Paul says:

    I suppose then there is little hope for people (like me) that don’t listen to music or particularly care for it.

    Unfortunately for poetry as a genre, it’s self-obsession is such that it long ago crawled up its own nether regions in a recursive pattern ending in an endlessly recursive singularity of artistic insularity.Report

  7. Avatar rtodkelly says:

    People don’t like poetry. Publishers reject poetry books because they don’t sell… The problem, in part, is that readers expect understanding to come from the words alone, as they entirely should. But poets, more than a few at least, will write in such a tortured manner as to force their reader to consult the dictionary seven times per paragraph, a history book at least twice, and a compendium of etymologies and literary imagery about infinity times by the end of the chapbook.

    All of this is true, of course, or at least it is to a point. But I think it also bears noting that the poetry/poetry criticism community bears a fair amount of responsibility for its own popular decline over the past 60-70 years. Of all of the various arts communities that I spend time with, I can think of none that spends as much effort both tearing down its own members and being dreadful to casual fans.* It’s what I have come to call the Billy Collins Principle: All poets who begin to find a measure of commercial or critical success must be torn down and disgraced by their peers; all budding fans of poetry who dare try to speak positively about their experience must be immediately mocked and driven from the fold. There’s a little bit of that in all of the arts, of course, but it seems to happen to an incredible (and to an incredibly self-destructive) degree in poetry.

    I enjoy Collins — to take the my principle’s eponymous wordsmith as an example — and find some of his works have a depth that sneaks up on me. But I’d never say that over beers with my friends who are poets/critics. If I’m out with them, I’ve leaned that if we’re going to talk about poetry I need to talk about a Saeed Jones or a Ntozake Shange or a Katherine Larson. For now, anyway. Jones’ nabbing the NBCC award with his first book seems to be taking its toll, and people I know are already beginning to reassess him as a Buzzed token/trifle. Larson also seems likely headed for the long knives after getting near universal accolade a couple of years ago.

    Both Jones and Larson, by the way, are bloody fantastic. Readers who have not yet checked them out absolutely should.

    Here’s one I like from Jones, Boy In a Whalebone Corset:

    The acre of grass is a sleeping
    swarm of locusts, and in the house
    beside it, tears too are mistaken.
    thin streams of kerosene
    when night throws itself against
    the wall, when Nina Simone sings
    in the next room without her body
    and I’m against the wall, bruised
    but out of mine: dream-headed
    with my corset still on, stays
    slightly less tight, bones against
    bones, broken glass on the floor,
    dance steps for a waltz
    with no partner. Father in my room
    looking for more sissy clothes
    to burn. Something pink in his fist,
    negligee, lace, fishnet, whore.
    His son’s a whore this last night
    of Sodom. And the record skips
    and skips and skips. Corset still on,
    nothing else, I’m at the window;
    he’s in the field, gasoline jug,
    hand full of matches, night made
    of locusts, column of smoke
    mistaken for Old Testament God.

    Here’s Larson’s Love at Thrity-Two Degrees:


    Today I dissected a squid,
    the late acacia tossing its pollen
    across the black of the lab bench.
    In a few months the maples
    will be bleeding. That was the thing:
    there was no blood
    only textures of gills creased like satin,
    suction cups as planets in rows. Be careful
    not to cut your finger, he says. But I’m thinking
    of fingertips on my lover’s neck
    last June. Amazing, hearts.
    This brachial heart. After class,
    I stole one from the formaldehyde
    & watched it bloom in my bathroom sink
    between cubes of ice.


    Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire
    & drove all night through the Arizona desert
    with a thermos full of silver tequila.

    It was the last of what we bought
    on our way back from Guadalajara—
    desert wind in the mouth, your mother’s
    beat-up Honda, agaves
    twisting up from the soil
    like the limbs of cephalopods.

    Outside of Tucson, saguaros so lovely
    considering the cold, & the fact that you
    weren’t there to warm me.
    Suddenly drunk I was shouting that I wanted to see the stars
    as my ancestors used to see them—

    to see the godawful blue as Aurvandil’s frostbitten toe.


    Then, there is the astronomer’s wife
    ascending stairs to her bed.

    The astronomer gazes out,
    one eye at a time,

    to a sky that expands
    even as it falls apart

    like a paper boat dissolving in bilge.
    Furious, fuming stars.

    When his migraine builds &
    lodges its dark anchor behind

    the eyes, he fastens the wooden buttons
    of his jacket, & walks

    outside with a flashlight
    to keep company with the barn owl

    who stares back at him with eyes
    that are no greater or less than

    a spiral galaxy.
    The snow outside

    is white & quiet
    as a woman’s slip

    against cracked floorboards.
    So he walks to the house

    inflamed by moonlight, & slips
    into the bed with his wife

    her hair & arms all
    in disarray

    like fish confused by waves.



    beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,
    every time I make love for love’s sake alone,

    I betray you.

    * (I should also note that while the world of poetry is brutally self-destructive, it is also weirdly, wildly, colorfully so. I have a half-written post on the wars waged in the British National Poetry Society in the 1970s that I really need to finish one of these days.)Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to rtodkelly says:

      In support of this, about ten years ago, Garrison Keillor published a poetry anthology. My recollection is that the poetry crowd dismissed it as hopelessly middle brow. I haven’t read the book, but my suspicion is that this is entirely spot on. But so what? A sensible approach would be to regard Keillor’s celebrity backing a book like this as a marketing opportunity for the whole community. Use the book as an entry drug to get more people hooked. Hinting instead that anyone who enjoys this book probably also has a painting on velvet of Elvis, or perhaps dogs playing poker, simply confirms everyone’s prejudices. FWIW, I see on Amazon that Keillor now has several of these books out. I doubt that Keillor has the pull to get them published if they weren’t making money.Report

      • NPR was interviewing a composer and the composer was talking about a recent period in which his music was mocked because it wasn’t atonal. The exciting artists were pursuing atonality and he was being almost comically retro in his compositions.

        I try not to mock “atonal” when I talk about it (insert line about how one of my favorite albums ever is atonal here) but the occasional surge in love for the atonal shown by the smart set makes my middlebrow gorge rise.

        There is so very much an attitude of a thing being good because of who does (and who does not) appreciate it rather than a thing being appreciated because of (list reasons having to do with the thing itself here).

        And that’s just effed up whether it happen in music, in poetry, in film, in theater, in video games, in culinary art, in sculpture, in…Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I protest that I often use anaphora, alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia in my prose. This is not poetry playing in masquerade, it is deployment of the words for particular purpose.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Burt Likko says:

      So you’re one of the Piranha Brothers in disguise?

      Vercotti: Doug… (takes a drink) I was terrified of him. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.
      Interviewer: What did he do?
      Vercotti: He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire. He was vicious.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Burt’s brisk briefs?Report

    • Our chief device is alliteration… alliteration and assonance… assonance and alliteration…. Our two devices are assonance and alliteration…and occasional onomatopoeia…. Our *three* devices are assonance, alliteration, and occasional onomatopoeia…and an almost fanatical devotion to elegant syntax…. Our *four*…no… *Amongst* our devices…. Amongst our techniques…are such elements as assonance, alliteration…. I’ll come in again.Report

  9. Avatar Joe Sal says:


    Let me manage this mischief with my two wrong feet
    Bright miser’s eyes
    Light, twiddling fingers

    I was born to break pencils and shake foundations
    To tune the wise words out
    Listen to my furiously beating heart

    I was born to look away from the sun when it rises
    Big brother watching me
    The straw in a stack of needles

    Sucking up the silence like they guzzle up your life
    And tie you in a bundle of paper notes
    They make you happier than freedom ever will

    I was born to shed my wings and slither into my snakeskin
    Watch the world crumble
    Like chocolate biscuits

    I clench my fists the crumbs crumble through the white knuckles
    And watch as you nod along
    Write between the lines

    I was born so I could die on a cross with its head lobbed off
    Stand in the rain
    And bleed into the gutter

    I was born to be a rebel and scream into the silence
    Burst into light
    Trace the contours of eternity

    I am the boy in the hoodie I am the roller
    I break apart on the road
    And the cars peck at me

    I am a fool in a world of sensible men
    With sensible rules
    I am the idealist

    I am the anarchist
    I was born to die
    On the altar
    of progress.

    EMMA TOBINReport

  10. I thought that ended:

    I am the anarchist
    I was born to live
    In my favorite