The Purpose of Poetry

Nadia Colburn // August 10, 2021 // 34 Comments
Recently, I wrote about the importance of writing. Today, I want to write about the importance and the purpose of poetry and offer some writing prompts for you at the bottom of this post.

This weekend, we were at Eric’s much younger cousin’s wedding; Raffi is closer in age to my kids; I watched him grow up. At the wedding, I found myself crying tears of joy and awe for the largeness of life. At the reception, around many people in their late twenties, I thought again about how at once exciting and daunting it is to create our lives—amid all the dangers, limitations, and possibilities around us, we forge a path forward. How do we do that?

In my twenties, of all the possible things to do with my life, I decided to study literature and poetry in particular. Why? In a world in which 9 million people die from hunger each year, why literature? Literature wasn’t going to save those people and it wasn’t going to make my life easy or make me rich, but I believed in the nourishment of literature as something almost as important as food. And I still do. I chose to study poetry in particular because it offered other ways of being, of connecting.

And it occurred to me that each poem is in its way a little place of ceremony, of attention, of condensed meaning, like a wedding itself, and it’s no surprise that so many weddings include poems. Poetry helps us be more awake, more aware, more alive. It helps us be aware of where we are and also turn in the direction we want to go.

What is the purpose of poetry? Why poetry?

For many people, this question may at first seem irrelevant. Either you love to read and write poetry, or poetry has no particular interest for you, and in either case, abstract reasoning about it might feel beside the point.

But since at least the 16th century in the English-speaking world, poets have been writing treatises on the importance of poetry. Philip Sidney’s famous Apology for Poetry rested on poetry’s ability to teach its readers through “delight” and lead them to “virtuous action.” In the early 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defense of Poetry rested on poetry’s ability to train the imagination; poetry, he wrote, “awakens and enlarges the mind itself.”

Today, poetry’s cultural centrality is drastically diminished (Shelley’s friend and contemporary Lord Byron, for example, enjoyed a status almost like today’s contemporary pop stars), but poetry’s pleasures and lessons are, if anything, all the more valuable, and being explicit about its benefits can help remind us of what poetry is and also who we are, for poetry helps show us ourselves. Poetry is there for all stages, all moods, all experiences of life. Chidiock Tichborne wrote his wonderful “Elegy” to himself in 1586 in the Tower of London the night before his execution; Osip Mandelstam scribbled poems in the Gulag; Anne Bradstreet wrote passionate poems of love for her husband in early America; Natalie Diaz today writes what she called her “postcolonial love poems” to her partner.

Poetry travels with us, meets us where we are, leads us to the next steps. In my own life, poetry has been a constant companion. I have written poems in my very darkest and in my happiest moments. And so, here are, I think, some of the main purposes and benefits and delights of poetry:

The Purposes of Poetry: Attention

Unlike prose, poetry asks us to pay attention to language not just word by word, but syllable by syllable. The very rhythms of poetry, its shorter lines, the pauses that are built into the reading experience, slow us down. Poetry demands that we listen, that we not jump ahead but stay with the experience of reading. It demands presence.

This slowing down, this act of attention is, as the philosopher Simone Weil says, itself a sacred act: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love… Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

When we train our mind to pay attention, as a poem helps us do, we naturally enter into a sacred relationship, what another philosopher, Martin Buber, calls the “I-Thou” relationship.

The Purpose of Poetry: Connection

Attention naturally leads to connection. As we pay attention to language, for example, we see that language takes on meaning in connection to tradition, perception, experience.

A word means something different in relation to other words; rhythms are formed only in relation to other rhythms and sounds. Form and content cannot be separated in a poem. A poem means exactly what it says in the form it is written. It can be shorthand to talk about the form and the content of a piece of writing, but in reality form and content cannot be separated; form is content and content is form. This is similar to the mind-body dichotomy. It can be helpful to talk about mind and body as separate, but, in fact, science and our own perception teach us that mind and body are just words pointing to parts of our experience that, in fact, are inextricable from each other.

Similarly, the meaning of a poem comes from the relationships formed between the lived world, the words on the page, their relationship to each other, and the reader herself. The craft of reading and writing poetry is inextricable from the practice.

The Purpose of Poetry: New Possibilities

And through the ways a poem teaches us to stay connected, new possibilities arise. The very close attention that a poem demands leads to greater and greater insight. The more we pay attention, the more respect and wonder we have. We are led, as Weil says, to prayer. Even if what we pay attention to is difficult, we see the connection between the particular and the numinous, the small and the large, what we can know and what we cannot.

As we pay attention to relationship, we come to pay attention as well to the openings between things, between words, that space of silence, that space of mystery and possibility. In a poem about poetry itself, Emily Dickinson wrote:
I dwell in Possibility –/ A fairer House than Prose – / More numerous of Windows – /Superior – for Doors –” Poetry opens windows and doors to spaciousness. In that more open space, new possibilities arise.

The Purpose of Poetry: Healing and Wisdom

This space of possibility is the space of creative energy itself, of that sacred spark. Poetry guides us to this space through the attention that it invites. It’s important to note that this attention is not the same attention of that of the analytical left brain.

We’re not going into a poem and inspecting it under a microscope. High school English classes sometimes destroy poetry for students by doing tedious, improbably close readings. It’s as if the class were in the presence of a wonderful falcon and, instead of watching it fly, instead pinned it down, cut it open, dissected, and killed the bird. But in staying with the poem—on the poem’s own terms—we get out of the left brain and into the creative imaginative space of the right brain. This is also the space of dream, of the subconscious, of myth, of spirit. And that space is also the space where change happens.

This is the space of our most primal cry—grief, trauma, physical pain all are part of this space and are often outside of language. It is also the space of our greatest joy, our sexual desire, our love, and the space of the sacred itself, of mysticism and awe. Interestingly, our most heightened experiences take us outside of language. And paradoxically, the very close attention to language that poetry creates brings us into the non-verbal, the space between words, the wisdom of the non-verbal.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson also famously wrote. Often the very slantness of a poem can get to the truth more accurately. All writing is a process of discovery, but especially poetry. The very form itself allows us to let go of our preconceived ways of saying or thinking about things and try new forms, new meanings. We learn through our own reading and writing processes.

In my own life, my poems were a place to express my trauma story before I had a conscious understanding of it. They were a place to heal. They are also a place to encounter the sacred, to connect with what matters, to reconnect with beauty, meaning, joy. 200 years ago, in his Defense of Poetry, Shelley famously called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This may sound grandiose, but it remains true that though poets may still largely be unacknowledged, through the act of poetry, we reconfigure our world; we create new worlds.

It can feel far fetched to say that reading or writing a poem has anything to do with, let’s say, the climate crisis, but from my own experience as an activist and talking to my friends who do full-time activism, what we need is not new technology, but a cultural shift, new ways of seeing and perceiving, the very things that poetry helps us do. You might look around you and think: where’s the evidence of that? From the outside in, it might sound like nonsense. But when we get inside the space of a poem, when we get inside the creative act, inside our own creative energy, amazing new possibilities open. We see, and more importantly experience, the transformative power of poetry.

This transformative power is in many ways similar to the transformative power of mindfulness itself: the very ways that poetry helps us pay attention, make connections, and open into the space between things. Poetry and mindfulness both bring us to the sacred emptiness and silence that lead to transformative change. In fact, all sacred traditions bring us to this space; whether it’s the Jewish wedding that I went to this weekend or the Muslim funeral, poetry like all spiritual traditions draws us into the space of meaning and creative power.

What about you? What have your experiences with poetry been like? What is the purpose of poetry for you? Please enjoy my writing prompts below and please leave a comment. I love to hear from you. And I encourage you to try one of my meditations before writing. You can download those in my free resource library.

And you can enjoy some of my favorite poems in this post about 15 great morning poems.

Also please stay tuned because I’m working on a new asynchronous online poetry course for this fall, a course on Poetry and Attention. I’ve been dreaming about making this class for several years and am having lots of fun creating it. So keep that in mind as you look ahead to your own fall; the course is designed to fit any schedule and is for poets and non-poets of any level. More information is coming soon!

Writing Prompts: The Purpose of Poetry
The purpose of poetry: image of notebook and pen

**Do you remember an encounter you had with a poem that was meaningful for you? Take one encounter and write about it.

**What role does poetry play in your life? What purpose does it have for you?

**Take Dickinson’s lines “I dwell in possibility/ a fairer house than prose” and write from/ about/ incorporating those lines.

**Take the line “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer” and write about it. **Choose one physical object around you right now and bring your attention to it. Write about it.

Please comment below! I love to hear from you.

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  1. I love writing poetry, have since I was young. I read your information and it hits home…. I write when I’m happy or sad…. either one.
    I look forward to your class in the fall.

    1. Yes; it’s so nice that poetry can meet us whatever our mood. And I’d love to have you in the class this fall! Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thank you. Thank you.
    This gives me incentive to keep going.
    I dream of (have parts of it in hand) my work printed.

    Ive loved poetry all my life.
    Looking forward to the new fall class already!

  3. I have been told that I write to stay sane. Writing poetry is my way of navigating the world. Of questioning, of raging, of rejoicing, of being in quiet spaces, of trying to find my way amidst so much noise of the world. Thank you for this article about the role of poetry… so much to think about. Thank you, Nadia!!!

    1. Marianne, yes, I can relate! Yes, so much noise in our world; thank goodness that we can also make space to hear ourselves. You’re so welcome and thank you!

  4. When I was still teaching I wrote a poem about how much summer meant to me and was actually published. Now that I am retired, I journal every day and really appreciate your workshops that started me thinking about creative writing which I love.

  5. This post reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading poetry, attending poetry readings and eventually taking Poetry classes where we all wrote and read our poems and listened to one another on a much deeper level than in any other class I had before or after. I am reminded of another poet, Audre Lorde, who wrote a prose piece in her book, Sister Outsider, entitled, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, Nadia and the memories it evoked of all of the poets I have read, listened to reading their own poems and inspired me to write my own. I look forward to attending one of your upcoming online writing courses. 💜

    1. Rosanne, I love Audre Lorde and, yes, that is an essay that has also meant a lot to me! I’ll look forward to working with you in a class!

  6. Nadia, I’ve always had trouble with poetry. Reading it, understanding it…
    What do you think of BLACKOUT POETRY? I have tried it with some much loved novels and I really love it.

    1. Nancy, I love that there are so many ways into poetry. You might enjoy my class–I’m going to be doing close readings of poems that will make it really easy and fun to enter them. And I know many students and colleagues who love blackout poetry. I’ve had fun with it, but it isn’t my main avenue into the medium, but I’m so glad that you love it!

  7. Nadia thank you so much for that. I love poetry and I have dabbled a little bit in it, this article has got me wanting to go back and start writing some poetry again. So looking forward to your class.

  8. Academia ruined poetry for me, exactly the way you described. In lit classes profs were always open to unique takes on what we read; in poetry classes I’d often hear “That’s not what the poet meant.” It created a divide: fiction as expansive and subjective, regardless of the author’s original intent, poetry as prescribed and objective (and gods help you if you got it “wrong.”) Thankfully, I got back into reading poetry many years later, when a friend gave me a book by Pablo Neruda.

    Ironic/fun fact: I write fiction, but my first and most important influence was TS Eliot. I’ll be sitting with this post for a while. And I’m going to start adding poetry into my morning practice. Thank you.

    1. Lorraine, Thanks so much for your comment. It’s sad that some professors, who presumably go into a field because they love the medium, often end up all-but destroying that love for others and sometimes for themselves. But I’m so glad that the spark is still there and so interesting that Eliot was your first influence…I really believe that poetry is inspiring not just for poets but also fiction writers–and everyone!

  9. Very interesting, thank you for the post. A month or two ago, I took one of your free offerings — it helped me produce several poems — I might even go so far as to say they’re “pretty good.” I did observe that sinking into Mindfulness beforehand greatly aided the connection with Muse/God/whatever it is that helps me write good poetry.

    I’m looking forward to this new class of yours, and I hope there will be scholarship options 🙂

    1. Hi John, So glad that you found that meditation helpful before writing–I do, too 🙂 And I’ll hope to have you in the course this fall! I try to keep my pricing/ offerings/ scholarships versatile so that as many people can access them as (reasonably) possible 🙂

  10. Came across an interesting observation in today’s Writer’s Almanac: It’s the birthday of poet Louise Bogan… [who] said, “I have no fancy idea about poetry. It’s not like embroidery or painting or silk. It doesn’t come to you on the wings of a dove. It’s something you have to work hard at.”

  11. Hi Nadia. Loved your description of the summer wedding and that you follow up with thoughts on poetry. Poetry is the way I speak to my inner self. It’s a way for me to see and listen, a conversation that flows freely into deep knowing and silence. I love writing poems that no one reads. Hope you are doing well. Sounds like you’re enjoying the creation of a new poetry course. Of course I would be interested.

  12. Reading and analyzing poems are one of the beautiful way to understand the actual meaning of it, few of them i learn when i was a kid of near about 8 or 10 years old. Thanks for sharing this, subscribed your blog for more updates..

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. One thing I observed is you keep repeating the ‘The purpose of poetry’ something I find a bit unnecessary. Thank you for this uplifting piece.

  13. Go to Amazon for my book of poetry, “Behold, This Dreamer Cometh”.
    This is not your high school or even college poetry, but has been created out of my 84 years of lifetime experience. Some is my own experience, some I have been blessed to receive from others, and some is inspiration; imagination if you accept it as such.
    Some of my poetry rhymes, while some is a balance of thought moreso than words alone. Just let it settle on your mind lightly, like the first snow of winter.

  14. Thank you. I read through once, I plan to read it again. As I read it at Christmas time, your writing comes like a gift I have wanted but unaware it existed. I wrote my first poem a few months ago, because a friend suggested. My first try, was about “childhood”: after a f brief meeting with my childhood friend.

    Your writing I beautiful. I like how the words are grouped together. I hope to read more of your works.

  15. A gentle Ah ha! moment. I have associated attention with communion which is very much akin to prayer. I think of poetry as an ethereal or spiritual activity, as an act of creation. And I think of poems as the interface between the poet and the audience who recreate the poetry that the poet intended though not necessarily AS the poet may have imagined because we are all of our own minds. And I like the association of communication/communion/intention/attention/prayer. Thanks for that!

    1. Thank you for this beautiful, reflective comment! I’m so glad that my piece helped you come to this beautifully realized insight about poetry

  16. I loved how you described poetry as a transformative power, the “space of meaning and power”. I find my creativity churned up these days while doing your classes ( 31 days). As I drop in, I am surprised and excited with what comes out on the written page. For me, it truly is that sacred act leading to greater mindfulness.

    1. I'm so glad, Linda! Thank you for your comment! It's powerful and exciting to see where our writing takes us.

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