Walk into any bookstore in the United States and you will find rows upon rows upon rows of shelves dedicated to the various and nuanced genres and subgenres of prose. Along a back wall, there will be perhaps a shelf or two (or in the case of my local Barnes and Noble, half a shelf) dedicated to poetry. You may be able to find a couple of anthologies or the newest work of prolific poets – or famous people attempting to brand themselves as artistic. You may find the complete works of Maya Angelou, a copy of Beowulf, or a coffee table book of poetry from Instagram. You will watch the bookstore patrons stroll curiously by the shelf but not stop. No one is buying the poetry. This is true even in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, a university town with a thriving local bookstore market. The following question is asked almost daily in my graduate department: Why poetry? What can poetry do that other mediums cannot?
From an analytic angle, it seems the answer is not much. According to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, two of the top-ten bestselling books of poetry in 2016 were The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. The fact that books like The Odyssey or Beowulf are bestsellers really reflects the idea that poetry is staid and passé. Even among my more well-read friends, most of them do not buy books of poetry. I decided to ask some of them why they did not seek out poetry. One friend of mine explained her apprehension towards the genre: “While I enjoy poetry, the part of literature that has always moved me the most is story and narrative.” Although poetry has some story elements, she felt that “often the purpose behind poetry is completely different than that of prose.” I recognize that I read more poetry than the average reader; I am literally branded with the language of American poet, Wendell Berry … via a tattoo. But even I at times feel frustration with the poets for binding their meaning in expressive language like a process of rime mummification. In the United States, most people are only exposed to poetry in high school or in university during literature classes; the focus remains heavily on canonized works, such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman. Readers are asked to analyze and discuss the seemingly archaic language, much of which has since fallen into the realm of cliché. For most people, reading poetry is associated with having to do the hard work to interpret it. Poetry demands much from its reader; it is asking us to dwell in a land of metaphor and language and of subtext and sounds, which is not easy to grapple with. Another of my friends noted she did not like poetry, feeling it was dense, perhaps too metaphorical, and often “went over her head.” This perception that poetry is something created for esoteric artistic minds and not for everyday people permeates the potential market.
Additionally, the age of internet has made accessibility to individual works extremely easy. Archives made of html code easily can replace tomes of poetry. If one wants to read “The Day Lady Died” without having the context of the rest of Lunch Poems, it is a singularly easy endeavor. It becomes a matter of whether or not paying 15 dollars for a slim volume of poetry is cost effective, which some did not find it to be, when a free copy of a singular poem is a click away.
That being said, I found that when discussing the value of poetry, the art itself becomes extremely individualized. I would argue that poetry, more than fiction, is intensely personal. Fiction is often an exercise in empathy, while poetry is the act of meditation, recreated word by word. While only one of my friends actually bought poetry, every single one could easily name a poem that they cherished and why they chose that poem. For some, it was nostalgia reflected by poetry from their youth: one spoke of a book of children’s poems handed down from a beloved cousin; another remembered how his father would repeat “If” by Rudyard Kipling as a way to encourage him during adolescence. For others, the poetry that spoke to them reflected their passions and vocations. One friend, a social worker, named a poem using language taken from letters written by sexual assault victims. Another, a historical reenactor and librarian, praised the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A third, who has spent years dedicated to the study of the first and second World Wars, loved “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen, saying “It shows the great divide between an old and new world, the disillusionment of millions that dragged the world into the modern era. Plus, the sound of the poem itself spits out gunfire and artillery shells and immerses you in an extremely emotional way.” Still others loved the language for language’s sake and stood in meditation of its beauty; two friends and myself loved poetry about the grace of nature. Because of this, we recognize that the art stands on its own to each reader, who may draw from it whenever they wish.
So I pose the question again: why poetry? Why would one read, for example, Notes of a Return to the Native Land when one could look at an encyclopedic entry about Aimé Césaire or a long form essay about the colonization and decolonization of Martinique? Because even those who do not actively seek out poetry, poetry still speaks to them and expresses the often inexpressible. In times of wonder or anger, in moments where malicious forces raise or where we are safe and at peace, poetry gives credence to our experiences through artistry. The language lingers in the body and mind, clinging to every cavity that it can, remaining with the reader. One friend pointed out that she seeks out poetry “during bursts of inspiration or times of needed reflection.” Poetry gives us that experience, and as readers, we must be willing to navigate the possibility of medium and seek new poetry.
Kayla Chenault is an African American who resides in the northern Midwest region of the United States. She was published in childhood starting from age 7. She is currently completing a Master’s in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.