What is the point of poetry?

Congratulations to George Saunders on his recent Man Booker Prize win for Lincoln in the Bardo, a book that tells the story of Abraham Lincoln visiting the grave of his young son and encountering the voices of the many dead. I haven’t read the work myself, and given the size of my reading list I probably won’t (or at least not anytime soon), but the article linked to above relates how deeply moving the story is without falling into sentimentality – something it easily could have given the premise. It is, it seems, a very human story about a very real man who had to live with tragedy and somehow carry on; and that is a tale to which we can all relate, a tale, in fact, which in one degree or another is each of ours.

Saunders’ book is a novel and not a collection of poems, and so you may be wondering why I chose to lead with it. The reason is a simple one: pathos. That is, pathos specifically and emotional arousal more generally. It is here, I think, where poetry shines best, where poetry shows that it does have a point, a purpose, and that it is an important one. In dwelling on that as I read about Saunders’ accomplishment I thought I’d give a few lines to the topic as I fear that in our hyper-everything-all-at-once times we are in danger of mistaking tweets for thoughts and quips for verse. These trends belittle and reduce us, but a good poem can and does set things right. How so?

Poetry lives in the subtle expression of that which we cannot adequately define but which we know, absolutely know, deep down within by virtue of being a human being and experiencing the emotional spectra that we do. Poetry gives voice to that voiceless song which is felt as an inaudible tightening around the sternum, a twisting of the stomach, an off-beat of the pulse, a race down or up the spine; this is the poet’s gift, to find a way to state that which is so physically bound up with how we exist in the world that the term “feeling” must be wrenched out of the solely mental categorization we usually give it and stretched over the course of the whole body. A good poem finds that hidden place where head and heart meet and takes aim. We engage a poem before we understand it, for poets are well aware that as human creatures we are emotional first and rational a distant second. (In addition to that post of mine from earlier this year, see two of Nick’s thoughtful pieces on self-referencing in poetry and prose from our archives: here and here.) Consider an example from Philip Rowland’s Something Other Than Other (p. 83):


That’s it, that’s the whole thing. No title, one word, three lines. What are we to make of a poem like this? Joseph Massey (also a poet) found it so admirable that he selected it for the Scorpion Prize (awarded by a haiku-focused journal), and there is indeed a quality to the work that gives pause. The word means a hermit, a religious seeker in recluse, and that alone conjures in the heart and the head a certain mystification that simultaneously signals what we all recognize when we allow ourselves the space to see: that there must be more to being alive than consuming calories, dumping them out, sleeping, and the odd roll in the hay. There is that something else (is this referenced in the title of Rowland’s collection?) which is so valuable and significant that we don’t consider a thing to even be alive without it (think of our attitude towards robots, and insects too for many people). Then there is that “i” set off in the middle of the word, the middle of the poem, which brings our attention to the fact that it really does come down to that. My “me”, my “I”, my journey through this trackless length of time that starts and ends with a whimper and a gasp.

Lincoln at a grave, his son, the voices of the dead; all involved in a careful dance, a nuanced interaction, a communion of souls lost and souls found. Poetry confirms what we might feel too humble to admit: That the only story worth really telling is yours, this beautiful and unique story of you – individuation and universalization; humanity, the human, each one of us, warts and all.


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  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post! All fiction writers should read (and write) poems. At a very minimum, poetry teaches brevity and the importance of every single word. Furthermore, being free of narrative and character constraints opens up limitless possibilities to explore what lies beneath. Poems are the perfect length to digest on that boring commute.

    Sadly, I’m well out of the habit…

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Paul! I’m glad you finally liked one of these. ;-)

    No time like the present to get back in the habit. I heard the Seoul Line 2 journey is especially good for stimulating poetic thought.

  3. Paul j Rogers
    Posted October 26, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    An interesting piece from the BBC on poetry and despotic dictators!

    Here’s the link. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20171025-why-tyrants-love-to-write-poetry

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