What’s Lit Got to Do with It? Why We Should All Read Poetry

An Impassioned Examination and Plea by Andrea MacPherson

In the last year, I’ve read twenty-one poetry collections (most recently, Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass, all the way back to 1996 by Sara Peters–read the complete list below). Likely this is more than some readers, less than others. Perhaps even twenty-one more than many people.

And why? Because poetry has a bad reputation. We’re intimidated by it. We’re unsure of its intentions. It’s the genre out behind the building in a black leather jacket, smoking. The gateway genre, trying to convince us to try the others. Poetry has been called too erudite, too difficult, too niche, too removed. Poetry is irrelevant to contemporary issues. Poetry is “fluff”.

Leather jacket smoking for Andrea Macs Why Read Poetry Photo Credit: badjonni via Compfight cc

But all those claims, all that name-calling is wrong. And here’s why.

We already know that reading literary fiction makes us better, more empathetic people. Poetry does something similar for us: it stimulates emotion and memory, and makes us more self-reflective. Poetry is good for us.

But the science behind poetry is only one reason to encourage us to read more of it. There are other, loftier reasons. Poetry is pleasure. It makes us really look at language, and all the muscular acrobatics it’s capable of producing. In a snapshot, it takes us into another experience, another moment, another life. A good poem can capture a whole lifetime in a few short lines: “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory” (Gluck).

Poems can be gritty, or dreamy; cerebral, or confessional. We can be transformed by the images we encounter in poems because we recognize ourselves–all our joys, tragedies, grief, and exhilaration–in the lines we find there.

If a novel is a movie, and a short story is an episode, then a poem is a photograph. Fleeting, focused, and forever reminding us of what we’ve seen, who we’ve been.

Poetry Collections:
Like a Beggar, Ellen Bass
Poems 1962-2012, Louise Gluck
Running in Prospect Cemetery, Susan Glickman
I see my love more clearly from a distance, Nora Gould
The Wrong Cat, Lorna Crozier
Artificial Cherry, Billeh Nickerson
The Sewing Room, Carla Funk
The Aviary, Miranda Pearson
The Fire Extinguisher, Miranda Pearson
Harbour, Miranda Pearson
The Sleep of Four Cities, Jen Currin
North End Love Songs, Katharena Vermette
For Your Safety Please Hold On, Kayla Czaga
The Scarborough, Michael Lista
Strike Sparks, Sharon Olds
Pluck, Laisha Rosnau
Children of Air India, Renee Sarojini Saklikar
Come Cold River, Karen Connelly
Wood, Jennica Harper
The Forage House, Tess Taylor
1996, Sara Peters

One Response to What’s Lit Got to Do with It? Why We Should All Read Poetry

  1. Karen Selesky January 25, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

    First, because Andrea won’t do it for herself, must reads are her 3 collections of poetry: Natural Disasters (2007), Away (2008), and Ellipses (2014).
    And I can’t agree with Andrea more – both about reading poetry and the “scare” factor. I admit I was one of those afraid of poetry even as I worked through my graduate work. But it was when I began teaching first year poetry that I developed a love, a passion for it. Hopefully I can transmit that to my students