Is Poetry Relevant?

This past week, I took a professional development workshop. In it, we teachers learned a variety of ways to get students reading and writing, and maybe even engaging some critical thinking skills. (I’m not being sarcastic. It actually was a helpful PD session, for once). One of the best activities involved using poetry– perhaps the least left-brain form of writing– to engage critical thinking skills. All in all, a thought-provoking activity, but the thoughts it provoked in me went in a different direction. I found myself asking:

Is poetry relevant?

Of the poems we read as examples, a couple were familiar to me, but most were not. They were all suitable for middle/high school students. I realized as we did this activity that I haven’t really read much poetry in… years? Ok, not true. I will read narrative poems; I reread The Iliad and The Aeneid a couple years back, and I’ve been celebrating October with some Poe (Poe-try?). But as for just sitting down with lyric poems and working with them…it just hasn’t been something I’ve been drawn to. Between reading fiction to study the craft, and reading fiction for pleasure, and reading history to broaden my knowledge, and reading student essays to eat and pay my mortgage, reading poems hasn’t felt all that pressing. But simply because I’ve neglected it doesn’t mean it’s not important. Some people neglect going to the dentist for a decade, that doesn’t mean dentists are irrelevant. But still, I ask:

Is poetry relevant?

I chose my question carefully. I’m not asking “Is poetry important/powerful/worthwhile/beautiful/interesting/useful?” I don’t think most people would argue that poetry has NO place in today’s world. There is a place for everything in this world: punch cards, speakeasies, the steam engine, the longbow. That place is a museum. These things, like poetry, all serve a purpose. But I wonder, in today’s world:

Is poetry relevant?

Our instructor told us about an assignment he would give his students. He worked with tough, urban kids from Atlantic City, and asked them to think of the dirtiest, foulest word they knew, and tell him. Of course, the kids started spewing all the profanity they knew in an attempt to answer the question (and to shock him), but he just shook his head. “Those words aren’t dirty. You use them all the time. They’re part of your everyday vocabulary. I would say that the dirtiest word you know is ‘poetry.’  Try this tonight for homework: go to five people you know and say ‘I want to talk about poetry’ and tell me how they react tomorrow.” The next day, the kids returned with stories of strange, uncomfortable looks and friends and family making a point to steer clear. I think this story illustrates something important: Poetry isn’t just obscure to most people; it makes people uncomfortable.

So now, having not answered the question in the least, I leave it to you, world:

Is poetry relevant?

In an essay of at least 1 word, defend your position on this issue. This counts as a test grade for the first marking period.

 

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3 thoughts on “Is Poetry Relevant?

  1. adeeperfaith says:

    Hey, man!

    I had to read your post (1st because we share a common appreciation for wordsmithing) and also because I am teaching high school speech class this year and I had them read poetry. For speech class??? I know.

    I think you’ve answered your own question in at least two ways in your own article:

    First: In writing “’I chose my question carefully. I’m not asking “Is poetry important/powerful/worthwhile/beautiful/interesting/useful?'” You have demonstrated at least part of it’s relevancy for one of the same reasons I have read poetry in speech class: to demonstrate the power of words. And thoughtful use in using words. That will quickly set you apart in public speaking. The poem I read contains a line that I am especially fond of, “all the sagging orchards steamed with amber spice.” I asked my students what imagery that conjured up in their mind. Brilliant answers. Then someone asked, “What is amber spice?” “I don’t know. I looked it up, I don’t think in exists,” I replied, “but can’t you smell it?” They nodded.

    Next, I love your analogy of comparing poetry with steam engines and longbows. (PS if you’re ever out in Denver I’ll take you to an amazing speakeasy.) These things are outdated, impractical and have been easily surpassed by modern technology–although appreciation of their magnificence still worthwhile you might argue, much like poetry–but what has replaced poetry?

    I have great fears for anyone suggesting that there is something that has replaced poetry (songs lyrics? But you could argue they are poetry) because I can think of few arts today that require such creativity as poetry–specifically in relationship to words. I keep flashing back to the scene in the dead poets society where Mr. Keeding demands his student to come up with a description and he blurts out “a sweaty-toothed madman!”

    Beautiful.

    And our society settles for “That was like a massive epic fail, dude. It was awesome.”

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.”

    Need I go on?

    I could.

  2. adeeperfaith says:

    Hey, man!

    I had to read your post (1st because we share a common appreciation for wordsmithing) and also because I am teaching high school speech class this year and I had them read poetry. For speech class??? I know.

    I think you’ve answered your own question in at least two ways in your own article:

    First: In writing “’I chose my question carefully. I’m not asking “Is poetry important/powerful/worthwhile/beautiful/interesting/useful?’” You have demonstrated at least part of it’s relevancy for one of the same reasons I have read poetry in speech class: to demonstrate the power of words. And thoughtful use in using words. That will quickly set you apart in public speaking. The poem I read contains a line that I am especially fond of, “all the sagging orchards steamed with amber spice.” I asked my students what imagery that conjured up in their mind. Brilliant answers. Then someone asked, “What is amber spice?” “I don’t know. I looked it up, I don’t think in exists,” I replied, “but can’t you smell it?” They nodded.

    Next, I love your analogy of comparing poetry with steam engines and longbows. (PS if you’re ever out in Denver I’ll take you to an amazing speakeasy.) These things are outdated, impractical and have been easily surpassed by modern technology–although appreciation of their magnificence still worthwhile you might argue, much like poetry–but what has replaced poetry?

    I have great fears for anyone suggesting that there is something that has replaced poetry (songs lyrics? But you could argue they are poetry) because I can think of few arts today that require such creativity as poetry–specifically in relationship to words. I keep flashing back to the scene in the dead poets society where Mr. Keeding demands his student to come up with a description and he blurts out “a sweaty-toothed madman!”

    Beautiful.

    And our society settles for “That was like a massive epic fail, dude. It was awesome.”

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.”

    Need I go on?

    I could.

    • Thanks for your reply. You touch on a question I was going to address, but decided not to for fear of turning my post into a ramble.

      Has something replaced poetry? It could be argued (very easily, I think) that lyrics are a form of poetry. Sure, there are lousy lyrics out there, but there is a lot of doggerel in the poetry world, too. I have no problem categorizing them together.

      It’s hard to formulate a logical justification for poetry. But then, poems themselves don’t work by logic. Perhaps the relevance of poetry is something more esoteric than a logical justification.

      And I think speech class is a perfect place to engage poetry. As you mentioned, it helps the students better appreciate the value of well-chosen words, not to mention that poetry is best served spoken aloud.

      Thanks again for reading!

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