July 26, 2021

What Does Poetry Do?

Sara Robinson

Recently I have seen columns asking their readership to answer: What does poetry do? I also asked my poetry critique group this question. One of my poetry friends responded, when asked if poetry can “fix” the world, poetry is not a screwdriver. Poetry is not supposed to fix anything.

Or is it? If we define “fix,” as setting something right that may have been incorrectly placed or to make something permanent or stable, then maybe poetry can fix at least something.

I’m advocating that poetry can be a “universal fixer.” What I mean is this: If the creation of poems can persuade an adversary to reconsider a point, create an awareness for an individual who has never appreciated the blueness of a particular bird, or offer an empathetic view toward diversity, to name just a few; then I think poetry can do many things. Poetry itself is not in the doing. Poetry is in the thinking and then we do the doing.

Witness (no poetry pun intended) recent events of violence. We have seen much come out of the writing community on topics of policing, inequalities of service, statues that resurrect unimaginable times, and so on. When I read poetry and articles about certain events, I am not looking for clues to fix something. I am looking for emotional commitment to the topic. If someone is that moved to write about it, then I know that person wants to offer a “fix.” The poet Brenda Hillman uses the word “metonymy” to draw an association with realism. For example,
“The White House” today raised up rails around the east side or “the Giants need a new glove in right field.” Here is one from me: “Detroit needs to remove the tarnish it has inherited.” Now while these lines are not poetic, what they give us is a way for poetry to do something. That is to say, we can take a collective, have it provide the action, or possibly a way to be fixed.

Another view of what poetry can do: Poetry can intimate that the past is never quite over with. This line taken from poet, Matthew Bevis, sums it up: “Did you just get déjà Vue?” The implication here is that we are reading a poem about something that happened and the reader knows that something similar happened to them, too. I have had times when a stranger has come up to me, drawing attention to some poem I wrote, then telling me that they were either at that same place or had that same feeling. How did I know or do that? While I want to say that poetry is magical, that seems flippant. Of the many things that poetry can do, what it cannot do is perform magic.

When you write your poems, think about what poetry is doing for you at that time. Maybe you just saw something that moved you so much you cried. Was it for joy? Sorrow? What if you wrote about your feelings? That is when poetry does something.

Until next time!

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).



  1. I loved this statement of yours Sara: "Poetry can intimate that the past is never quite over with." I realize I need to spend more of my time reading poetry. I have found some of it makes me think; some gives me a calm feeling and some spurs me on. Thank you for reminding me of this.

  2. I always look forward to your posts!

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