Why poetry? (In progress. I gotta work on this some more!)

Poetry, like other forms of art, can be a way of expressing emotions when words fail us. Poetry is made of words, of course, but the language of poetry is often not conventional.

Many who do not understand the value of poetry do like music. If you were to tell me your favorite song, I could ask you if you know the lyrics and you might. I could ask you why you like the song. You may say it’s the beat, or the sound of instruments, but there would be a good chance the song lyrics mean something to you. Why do we need songs?

Song lyrics have much in common with poetry. Some lyrics are poems. They can move us in unexpected ways. I have been to a few concerts by the great American singer/songwriter Paul Simon. There’s a moment I’ve noted consistently happens at his concerts when he performs his song “America,” which is about a man and a woman on a long bus ride. Consider searching and reading through the lyrics. We don’t know the backstory. The lyrics tell us the couple have “gone to look for America.” At the end of the song, the narrator speaks to the woman, even though she is sleeping. He tells her that he is empty and aching. The transition to that though is a line about the moon.

In concerts, when Simon sings “And the moon rose over an open field,” the audience invariably cheers. I’ve asked myself why. It’s a simple line that doesn’t declare any  emotion. It does conjure up a beautiful image and one we have all seen. Maybe people who know the song recognize that it’s the turning point of the song. The lines just before it are almost deliberately boring and mundane. He looks at the scenery. She reads. The man sees the moon rising over a field. But then what? He says to is companion that he is lost, empty, and aching and doesn’t know why. Many of us–I think it is likely that almost all of us–can relate to that feeling. Even when we don’t write poetry or song lyrics, we use poetic language. Paul Simon sings that he’s lost. He’s not really lost. He’s on a bus. He says he is empty. He’s not really empty, nor is he aching the way we ache when our hip is bothering us. We seem to need different ways of expressing feelings. We routinely use metaphorical (poetic) language. We say we are sinking, soaring, feeling smothered, jumping with joy, feeling crushed, feeling uplifted when we are none of those things literally.

Why do we need songs? is similar question to one about  why many of us need poetry. Through human history, poetry has been of great value. Poetry has been part of all cultures, literally dating back to prehistoric times. It is possible that poetry was spoken before humans could write. We know of poetry dating back to the 25 th century B.C. Why would poetry have emerged so early in the development of humanity and have been so pervasive? Is it fair to think that it may be that poetry, in different forms, is needed by humans?

In the growing field of moral injury, there has been much discussion of the role of poetry. And yet, many of us just don’t care for it. We may have had been bored or perplexed by it in school. Worse, maybe we were forced to write poems and read them aloud to adults and peers. Perhaps we found that embarrassing. Or perhaps the poems we were required to read in school were hard to understand, strange, even boring. Or we may see poems and ask ourselves why they are often hard to understand. Here, though, we could remind ourselves that poetry is a different kind of language. It isn’t about rhyming and rhythm. It isn’t intended to express meaning in the same way as ordinary language.

If you are open to exploring poetry, read on. Let’s look at a few poems, chosen to help us see beyond some of our not-so-true attitudes about it.

Here’s a haiku about World War I.

zero hour
going over the top–
last thoughts of home

This could be about any war experience. Or any dangerous journey. The author, Ewen Toghill, is not a famous poet. He was a fiftg grader when he wrote this poem in response to a
classroom assignment.

Bill McCloud is a Vietnam Veteran and poet. Here’s his brief poem, written not long after he returned home from his service in Vietnam, which is used here by Bill’s permission.

Slow Motion

Once I put my fist
through a window
for no reason at all

and watched the
glass breaking
in slow motion

What words might we use if we were labeling Bill McCloud’s emotions that he reveals through this poem? Anger, fury, rage? Or is there something here that’s more like “numbness” We ask, because McCloud didn’t tell us in the poem. He’s showing, through to poem, that he has experienced intense emotion. Reading the poem, though, may resonate with us in a way that it wouldn’t have if the author had simply written this:

One time I got mad and put my fist through a window for no reason. It looked like the glass was breaking in slow motion.

Poetry and Moral Injury

Poetry often asks us to think. It doesn’t spell it out for us. War poetry has always existed. Much of the recent explosion in interest in moral injury has been inspired by the books Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Shay wrote the books after years as a psychiatrist in a VA hospital, working with Vietnam Veterans. His books show parallels between the experiences and troubles common to combat veterans to those seen in the characters in Homers’ ancient long poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. The poems are about war, the causes of war, and the aftermath of the war on combatants and their loved ones.

We can find examples, though, of poems written on themes of moral injury and PTSD in victims of crime, of those who have encountered terrible injustices, of physicians, nurses, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic.