Why bother with poetry?

There’s a moment in every business writing workshop when the anxiety levels suddenly rise. People wince. Their shoulders hunch up. The sense of terror is palpable. It happens when you mention the idea of writing, or even just reading, some poetry. I call it ‘dropping the P-bomb’. It’s a shame.

Poetry shouldn’t be a thing for anyone to fear, but they do. Writer Gregory Orr says something has gone wrong with the way we think about poetry; we’ve lost touch with its value and purpose. “Many people I know feel that poetry is a test they can only pass if they are smart enough or sensitive enough, and most fear they will fail,” he writes. “Many refuse the test altogether – never read poetry – for fear of failure.”

The special thing about poetry, he continues, is not that you have to be exceptionally intelligent and sensitive to make or read it; quite the opposite. It’s that every culture on the planet today – in their 3,000 different languages – creates poetry in some form or other. And that’s been true since the emergence of written culture. There are Egyptian love poems recorded on scraps of papyrus 3,300 years old. That’s about 600 years before anyone wrote down the Iliad.

Why has poetry – and specifically lyric poetry that uses the first person “I…” – endured? Because it does something that other forms of writing doesn’t, says Orr. “Its function is to help us express and regulate our emotional lives, which are confusing and sometimes opaque to us.”

People have written personal poetry for thousands of years because it helps them survive “the existential crises represented by the extremeties of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstance as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence or loss of a loved one.”

The kind of crap that happens to us today happened in ancient Egypt too. When you make a poem of it, two things happen: you get some distance from it, by moving it into the world of language, so you can have a different perspective on it; and you get to actively (re)shape it, rather than passively endure it.

Orr talks about the day he first wrote a poem in English class at school: “It changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language was magical , unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it.”

To me, that sounds like a good reason for writing poetry. And to Orr’s list of traumas, I’ll add a positive turn. Poetry is also a way to notice and celebrate our capacity for delight, joy and love; of wonder at the world and our experience of moving through it.

We instinctively know that poetry has this special power. At life’s extreme moments – from births and funerals to birthdays and weddings – we use it to express what we feel but can’t find the words for.

And in that process of looking for, reading, hearing or writing just the right words, we can transform both what we feel and our capacity for feeling.

Now, imagine if we tapped into that power every day?