February 12, 2020

The Defense of Poetry

Sara Robinson  @facebook

Are we responsible for making poetry matter? How do we prove or defend the idea that poetry can make a difference? How will our lines influence society in general, our own lives, or even the conservation of nature? Do we use poetry to expose a morality of bad taste?

What about the use of hyperbole to create a defense of poetry? It could be noted that the use of extreme exaggeration, in a line, to make a point could risk overwhelming the entire poem. Or does the entire poem work as hyperbole?

How can we find a balance as part of our defense of poetry? Author Michael Robbins, in his new book, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster) stated, “No one has ever changed his life because of a poem or song…” Really?  Why do I find that hard to accept? On a personal note, a young woman heard me read my poem, “A Poem Written As Scars,” came up to me and said my poem changed her life. Later in the same book, [Robbins] also says, “There is no limit to what a poem can’t do…poetry makes all sorts of things happen.” These statements add to the confusion of how best to defend poetry.

Poets, since the beginning of the genre itself, have used its form to confront grief, describe horrors of war, starvation, and suicide. We have learned about the complexities of human lives through poetry. Witness Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. The tragedies of mental illness, for example, are laid bear with these and others. Poetry provides insight and intimacy without which we might not understand how precious life is.

Poetry has emboldened people to reveal mental turmoil, has given us the heartland of America, and has enlightened us.  Poetry may not give any one person everything or every answer. Humans are too individual for universal acceptance. But what would we have, if we didn’t have poetry?

I often say at readings, “While poetry is mostly fiction, it always states great truths.”
For many poetry is more accessible than philosophy and in this access people gain their sense of worth, even as why they are even here. When we read poetry about the wonders of nature, the sentiments of love, and the sadness of death, we share the experience with the writer. We also gain the sense of hope. Perhaps that one sense is the most important gift of poetry. Hope.

Poetry can be experienced alone or in public. Tea-sippers and whisky enthusiasts can appreciate poetry. When we share poetry at gatherings connections are formed that add to the value of the human experience.  Poetry can help us fall asleep or it can keep us awake and energized into action. We may not “binge-read” poetry, but I can show you books I could not put down until I finished. That’s another defense: poetry books are typically less than 100 pages, easier to complete at a sitting and easier to pick up for repeat readings. It is easier to carry a poetry book in one’s purse than a novel!
Even single lines can be poetry. How marvelous is that? Think about this line:
“I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments…” (Marianne Moore)
When we read poetry in our average and spare moments, we can gain pleasure.
Who doesn’t love Mary Oliver? Here is a three line stanza from her poem, Landscape, that I believe is so powerful: “Every morning I walk like this around / the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart / ever close, I am as good as dead.” What an incredible validation of how our own personal openness can enrich our lives.

Louis Menand, in a review titled, “The Defense of Poetry,” for The New Yorker magazine, wrote, “When the going gets stressful, the stressed want poems.”

Amen to that.

 Author of Sometimes the Little Town (her fifth book and fourth poetry collection), is founder of Lonesome Mountain Pros(e) Writers’ Workshop, former UVA-OLLI instructor on Contemporary Poetry, and poetry columnist for Southern Writers’ Magazine. Published in journals and anthologies, she is a former Virginia Writers’ Club and Blue Ridge Writer’s Chapter officer.  Her most recent book, Needville has now been turned into a play.

Her website is


  1. Thank you Sara for your post. I enjoy poetry, always have. Some poetry has a way of soothing me while others give me a look into the deeper things of mind.

    Delighted your book Needville was turned into a play.

  2. I've noticed fictions writers who also write poetry have a beautiful rhythm to their fiction.

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