Sara M. Robinson
In an earlier essay, I discussed the importance of reading poetry in order to be a better poet. But let’s take another view. Why is it important for me to read poetry, even if I don’t write poetry?
For starters, reading poetry is about taking a short journey in a very small boat across a very small lake all by yourself. You can easily accomplish the reading of several poems in a small amount of time. Contrast this to a novel. To start and continue a novel requires a commitment of time that may not be easy to give. Novels are long (200-1000 pages); while poetry books are typically less than a hundred.
And there are the lines. In novels they can be long and winding. In poems lines are short and direct. Both have heroes and heroines. Both can have plots. A poem can tell you about the death of a soldier in an airplane in five lines. Whereas a novel may take three hundred pages to get you to the same thing. Another big difference is that poems use metaphors to grab your attention. Can you envision a combat gunner inside a fighter plane’s rear glass turret fending off the enemy only to be killed by a rocket? What if he, as part of the metaphor, is telling the story of his impending death in the same context as being shocked out of his mother’s womb. All in five lines.
There is another truth of why to read poetry. The striking language in a small space lets you do all the expansive thinking. Poetry in a few lines with creative words has to do a lot of “showing.” A novel gets the excuse of doing most of the “telling.”
In Maxine Kumin’s poem, “Woodchucks,” (which I have written about before), we learn about The Holocaust in thirty lines. How many books have been written about this history? By using amazing metaphors, we get the real meaning of her poem. That is why it is important to read poetry. No wasted words. In poetry every word has a purpose. As a poet, I can tell you that I can spend an afternoon struggling on whether or not to use a particular word in a draft.
A poet can write about selfishness, lament and regret, using plums in a refrigerator that were intended for someone else, but were eaten instead by another. And the poem was only twelve lines long. Yet it spoke volumes about the person speaking, and the human experience.
I tell you this: I read poetry to gain appreciation for brevity with meaning. I read to learn the specialness of words and how so often less is more.
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).
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