Poetry itself can engage in smart debate, of course. Yet even didactic poetry — poetry that makes an argument — does so in a more creative, meticulous and compelling way than we usually see in our heated public discourse.
Another reason that I think we are drawn to poetry: Poems slow us down. My summer poetry class teacher, Abram Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, reminded me that poetry is the “art of paying attention.” In an age when our attention is commodified, when corporations make money from capturing our gaze and holding it for as long as possible, many of us feel overwhelmed by the notifications, busyness and loudness of our lives. Poetry calls us back to notice and attend to the embodied world around us and to our internal lives.
In this way, poetry is like prayer, a comparison many have made. Both poetry and prayer remind us that there is more to say about reality than can be said in words though, in both, we use words to try to glimpse what is beyond words. And they both make space to name our deepest longings, lamentations, and loves. Perhaps this is why the poetry of the Psalms became the first prayer book of the church.
I am trying to take up more poetry reading in my daily life. Reading new poems can be intimidating, but I figure that the only way to get poetry really wrong is to avoid it altogether. It helps that poetry is often short and quick to read so I fit it into the corners of my day — a few minutes in bed at night or in the lull of a Saturday afternoon.
During the past school year, with my kids home because of Covid precautions, we would pile books of poetry on our table once a week (Shel Silverstein, Shakespeare, Nikki Grimes, Emily Dickinson), eat cookies, and read poetry aloud. I now try to always keep some books of verse around.
In one of my very favorite poems, “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of a beauty that is “past change.” In this world where our political, technological and societal landscape shifts at breakneck speed, many of us still quietly yearn for a beauty beyond change. Poetry stands then as a kind of collective cry beckoning us beyond that which even our best words can say.
Have feedback? Send a note to HarrisonWarrenemail@example.com.