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A Case for Poetry

By Nicole Stanton

Elizabeth Alexander has a beautiful quote about poetry, one that could seemingly justify this black sheep genre to all the critics. In her poem, “Ars Poetic #100: I Believe”, the narrator is a teacher at her wits end with her class. Her students believe that poetry is all blue skies and sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. The narrator addresses her students: “’Poetry,’ I tell them, ‘is the voice of the human, and we are of interest to one another. Are we not?’” Alexander here makes a case for poetry, one that proves it to be an irreplaceable art form, especially today.

When thinking about the development of art in ancient civilizations, we can consider a sort of hierarchy of needs that had to be met. One must have a stable food supply, water, shelter – you need to be safe. When you have stability and security, you can turn to a desire to create. This makes sense even today. If you are exposed on the top of a mountain as a storm approaches, you most likely will not be dreaming up your latest idea for a novel. However, we also live in a time when basic needs of many global citizens are not being met. Food and water and shelter are compromised for millions of humans, yet here we are, talking about poetry. There are a slew of famous poets who turned to their creative energies while their safety was severely compromised. Irina Ratushinskaya, a female Russian poet, famously scratched her poems into bars of lye soap in the showers of the Gulag. What this could suggest, perhaps, is that as long as people are speaking, breathing, living, poetry will exist. While the very existence of human life is being threatened, we see through the flames a human need to sing.

For many, literature provides a narrative to a subjective experience so that it can be shared. One of the greatest joys of reading is finding commonalities with characters across the seas and the cosmos. Language can allow us to emerge from the loneliness of silence to the comfort of common ground. We could argue, however, that the flaw of language is that one word could mean many things and that significance could be lost in translation. Craig Morgan Teicher has a wonderful quotation about this: “What proof do you have that when I say ‘mouse,’ you do not think of a stop sign.” Herein lies my argument for poetry. The poem has the ability to elevate language so that the reader or listener may be able to picture this exact mouse and all its details — the way he scurries under the cupboard, or his brown tufts of fur around the ears. The language of poetry has the ability to dissolve barriers of interpretation so that we can feel what it means, allowing readers across the seas and the cosmos to find commonality in the human experience.

Poetry, as with all worded art forms, begins with a single voice – the literal sound of chords resonating in a writer’s throat to communicate something to the world. Each voice finds a home in different bodies, each body residing in a different culture, place, time. Thus, each voice possesses its own perspective on the world. Our worlds all sound and taste differently, our experiences of being alive look nothing like anyone else’s. How interesting, as well, that we live in a time of mass culture and globalization, when we are subject the tremendous efforts to homogenize the world. Poetry can provide hope for the celebration of fiercely individual voices.

The goal is to make a poem that no one else could have made but you – to stand and exist in your moment and express the heart of it. It seems then, that poetry is absolutely necessary. It may be the most important moment in human history to learn to listen to the voices of others, to sift through difference to find what makes each of us human. There is hope in a time when there is a sense of dread for the future of the world, that a particular combination of words, metaphor, and rhythm can be bound to the experience of one human, and that we all have the power to listen. “’Poetry,’ I tell them, ‘is the voice of the human, and we are of interest to one another. Are we not?’”

 Nicole Stanton is the Program Coordinator for Aspen Words. She also writes and teaches poetry.


Elizabeth Alexander joined fellow poet Claudia Rankine on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2015 to explore how their art can tackle some of the most difficult social-justice questions we face today. Watch the video.

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