Poetry still has its place in the 21st century

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, April 19, 2017
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A rare signed edition of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry from 1773. [File photo]

April 17 was World Haiku Day and April 19 is Poetry and the Creative Mind Day. The fact that we need such celebratory reminders highlights the sometimes forgotten or unappreciated role that poetry plays in our lives. The best poetry transcends time and speaks as well to future generations who may discover poetry anew and apply ancient wisdom to help resolve today's problems and challenges.

For a start, some linguists theorise that our first words were probably poetry—emotional utterances that sprang from deep within the formative part of our brain. Before writing came along much later in our history, poetry was the way of transmitting culture from one generation to another. Long poems provided a way to remember important events and life lessons that could be handed down to the next generation. China, for example, has a long oral and written tradition of poetry, which has been highly influential around the world and whose influence continues today. This poetry tradition is intricately linked with other arts such as painting, calligraphy, singing and dance.

Poetry is an important component of education. Indeed the Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote of the truth seeking involved in poetry and the Celtic tradition once held that one could not be a teacher unless he or she was also a poet. The management literature today stresses the importance of emotional intelligence. The creative act of writing poetry, the joy of listening to poetry, and the understanding about life that comes from studying poetry, all provide strong justifications for its inclusion in the school curriculum. Other recent education research is finding that remembering poetry is a powerful tool for enhancing brain development in young people and for promoting mental resilience in the elderly.

Poetry enables us to get in touch with and express our emotions. As poet Robert Frost put it, "[P]oetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words."While Sigmund Freud provided a useful theory about the importance and key role played by our underlying world of emotions and the subconscious, poetry has been and remains an important vehicle by which we can connect with that world, with ourselves and with those around us.

Poetry also keeps us humble as we come to realize how little we truly know about the depth and richness of both our conscious and sub-conscious lives. As President Kennedy wrote, "When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

Poetry sharpens the senses. Through poetry we are able to communicate feelings that can be expressed in no other way. This special quality is captured by poet Carl Sandburg when he observed, "Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance."

Unfortunately, poetry is often overshadowed in today's world of news, fake news and endless trivia which keep us stuck on the surface of life. As Don Marquis put it, "Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." On the other hand, there are poets such as my long-time dear friend, Dr John Garmon, whose poetry, while earning him little monetary reward, has nevertheless enriched my life and the lives of thousands of others.

Poetry also builds resilience by enabling us to get through the tough times that are part of everyone's life. Jeanette Winterson, a poet and writer, writes, "...When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers -- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."

Poetry itself has been resilient. While it may presently be devalued, poetry is ever adaptable and continues to take many and newer forms. As Lord Byron observed, "A man of eighty has outlived probably three new schools of painting, two of architecture and poetry and a hundred in dress." Today, elements of poetry are to be found in musical lyrics, in hip-hop, in spoken word poetry and of course in the world of advertising. Poet Maya Angelou had this in mind when she noted, "Human beings love poetry. They don't even know it sometimes... whether they're the songs of Bono, or the songs of Justin Bieber... they're listening to poetry."

Poetry is necessary for a full life. As U.K. Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman pointed out, "Too many people in the modern world view poetry as a luxury, not a necessity like petrol. But to me it's the oil of life." While the internet and other media can be a distraction and lead to mindlessness, it can also serve as a vehicle for creation. With access to the internet today we can all write and access poetry easier than ever before. Just as there is a Maker Movement that promotes the values inherent in making things, so too there are creative communities that promote the creation and enjoyment of poetry. William Hazlitt argued that "Poetry is invaluable in its own right. Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself." As English poet, John Keats, surmised in his famous poem A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever:

Nor do we merely feel these essences

For one short hour; no, even as the trees

That whisper round a temple become soon

Dear as the temple's self, so does the moon,

The passion poesy, glories infinite,

Haunt us till they become a cheering light

Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast

That, whether there be shine or gloom o'ercast,

They always must be with us, or we die.


Eugene Clark is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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