What does poetry do?

What does poetry do?

Last week on a panel with other Creative Pinellas artist grantees, I appreciated hearing about the different art forms this grant is supporting, and about how local artists have fared at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, social and climate change, and challenges in their changing fields.

Poet Gloria Muñoz, whose book Danzirly was published during the pandemic, at one point speculated on the challenge of how to carry it all, in light of the hardships and pain the pandemic had caused and exacerbated for so many people. Maybe a poem will not change anything, she suggested, but taking the direct action to help someone concretely with her skills (for example, writing a query letter for someone who cannot afford to pay for her services), might.

I hear what she’s saying. Reading a poem won’t put food on the table. But if you read Muñoz’s book, which is break-you-open beautiful in the way only a poet can do, you may agree she’s being modest—especially if you’ve ever felt a poem’s capacity to shift those underground plates of the self, often in deeper ways than can be articulated. That shift is all over a poem’s structure itself, often in those last few lines you feel in your gut after their brief detour through the brain, which is a very tiring place to spend all of one’s time.

There have been times in the last year when I could stand to read only poetry. It seemed only the musicians and poets could make it past the walls of argument and rhetoric found in piles of prose that can be both illuminating and obfuscating. When all other ways of using language seem to fail, poetry is the one still standing, the bridge that pushes beyond language to access what lies beneath it. I know this is unreasonable for a writer of mostly prose to say, but there it is.

Over the years I have heard many people dismiss poetry as something they “just don’t get”. My own exposure to it before adulthood can be summed up as whatever was covered in school, where the approach focused more on “solving” the poem as a puzzle, applying the intellect like a tool rather than also meeting a poem via the body, self, and experience. Maybe this decoding stance is part of the reason many people seem to have a collective inferiority complex about the genre, turning it into a competition for the intellect to tackle successfully rather than an invitation to engage through the body-mind-life in the texture of a well written poem.

Some confess their love for poetry like it’s a secret, while others dismiss the form as inconsequential, too gossamer and above the clouds for the real world. Not so! I once mentioned to a group of mostly analytically minded people, in a work setting in which I was the only one in the room with the “writer” job description, that I enjoyed reading and writing poetry. Though my bland statements about work history went over ok, at this statement I was met with crickets, a silence that skipped along a moment beyond the comfortable until it was another person’s turn to speak. I found this strange. So that was the wrong thing to say at a conference table, even by a writer? Why?

So, what does poetry do? Even as we may congratulate ourselves for asking such an industrious question in a culture in which doing clobbers being in our assessments of value and worth, I’d say poetry can hold its own. Yes to action, yes to doing, yes to direct compassionate response to hardship and struggle and pain. And yes to poetry, which is to shift and change, which is doing and being both. If this sounds right to you, you can find Gloria’s book here. Open it like a present that some kind soul (you) gave to you as a gift. Do not skim! Soak in her words and the spaces around them. See for yourself what a poem can do.


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