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Writing poetry: Why do we write?

I don’t usually “get” poetry. I secretly scoffed at my friends in undergrad who called themselves poets. The Poetry Club seemed like a contest to out-pretentious and out-angst one another. As a reader, I usually prefer prose. It makes sense; I don’t usually have to guess at anyone’s meaning. But poetry is a different beast altogether.

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

Poetry is an opaque blend of words, phrases, rhyme, and rhythm. Sense is forsaken in favor of feeling. 

That’s why, perhaps, when the world stops making sense and my emotions rage, I pick up a pen and find myself writing (to my initial horror) poetry. I try to make meaning of the loose phrases and imagery haphazardly thrown onto my blank page in this state. And by the end, even if the world is still in chaos, the act of writing provides me respite, and I feel as though I start piecing myself back together.

Writer Marge Piercy describes writing poetry as meditation. “The stray images and thoughts that the meditator blows away are the rich suggestive stuff of poems. Every little gnat of irrelevancy may turn out to be what the poem is really about,” she wrote in The New York Times column “Writers on Writing” in 1999.

This chaotic process of meaning-making gives me a new language to tackle my feelings head-on. To me, this form of writing feels inherently subversive. Rules become playthings, even within the confines of form, when meaning becomes limitless.

It isn’t that I’ve given up trying to communicate to an audience. When I write poetry, my communication goals simply shift from story to emotion. 

The stanza

Them back into her body as petals   

Of a rose close when the garden

from the poem Edge by Sylvia Plath could be about withdrawing, or the end of a woman’s fertility, or the terminating of a pregnancy, or most likely (pro tip for anything written by Plath) death. But what do you feel looking at that stanza? The rose is taking back her bloom. She’s closing herself from life. Melancholy? Hurt? Power? Strength?

Poetry is about the universality of feelings. So this week, I challenge all of you—when finals’ stress feels like you’re going to break, or when the promise of a Covid vaccine gives you an indescribable, elevated, high—take a second and jot down words, phrases, and images that come to mind. And you’ll have a better sense of the world and yourself. We can all be poets.