“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into an idea, then into more tangible action.”— Audre Lorde
As we glimpse at the world around us, we might see many aspects of our lives are being weaponised. From women’s bodies, to food, to state budgets, to our futures. Language too, is increasingly weaponised, and as a result, we become less and less able to communicate with each other.
But poetry may hold a key to how we can begin to respond to this assault. This is poetry as a strategy for engaging with the world and with each other.
In a world that has for too long prioritised reason and dismissed emotion, we have become disembodied. We have lost the ability to feel, or to sense, yet we know that many of our words, responses and actions are heavily influenced by our emotions. This is where poetry can help.
In Poetry is not a Luxury, Audre Lorde said that poetry’s role was to illuminate, to shine a light on those parts of ourselves that have been buried for too long. Poetry, she wrote, was “the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” It is only through scrutinising our lives through such illumination that we have any chance of pursuing the change we want to see in the world. If we cannot imagine it and articulate it, then we won’t achieve it.
Two centuries ago, in A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley argued that poetry was “at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought.” To him, poets were philosophers; they were the institutors of laws and civil society, and civilizations advanced and thrived with the help of poetry. Poets, he ends with, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The skills that poets develop – to enlarge our world yet also shine a light on the specifics; to combine thoughts and express complexity with simplicity – might explain why throughout history, they were often revered (or feared), and found themselves close to power holders.
Chinese emperors and leaders during the Tang Dynasty, for example, used to hire male and female poets to provide them with inspiration on-demand, but also give them scholarly advice and wisdom.
So how could we use the poetic process as a guide?
The mere exercise of trying to compose a poem, for example, regardless of the quality, and of choosing the words to put to our thoughts, requires us to think deeply; to remove the superfluous, to seek clarity. It brings us closer to truth.
It’s like when children want to understand something we may have said, they will keep asking us ‘why’ until we give them a clear answer (which can be really annoying because we may find that we don’t actually know the answer or can’t find the words!). There is wisdom to be found in this process.
It can also be a way through disagreement. “Poetry is language against which we have no defence,” David Whyte tells us. It is “that moment in a conversation where you have to have the other person understand what you’re saying.” But, he says, you must say it with the intimacy of care and understanding.
Words have the ability to change us, and others, so we must indeed choose the words we use with care. Unfortunately, the language we use in many of our professions is often desperately bureaucratic, academic or legalistic. Whether we do it out of habit, because it’s all we know, or because it makes us sound like we know what we're talking about, such language does not prioritise care or understanding – it excludes, and not just people, but also differing experiences, feelings and perspectives.
So whenever we are struggling with making a decision, developing a strategy or figuring out what our role should be, perhaps we should think like a poet.
Poetry is an invitation to simplicity, to rhythm, to pausing, to silence. Poetry removes unnecessary words and cuts through the noise. It can also guide us through loss, through mess, and through the confusion that leaves so many of us wondering which crisis is more deserving of our attention. Poetry reveals the world to us – and it reveals ourselves to us.
Words, Veronica Yates, and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
References and Further Resources
‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury,’ Audre Lorde, in Sister Outsider
‘Bodies in Motion, with Pablo Escorcia,’ What Lies Beneath: Movement, The Rights Studio
A Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley, available online.
‘Seeking Language Large Enough,’ with David Whyte, OnBeing Podcast, May 26, 2022.
L’immortel banni sur terre buvant seul sous la lune, Li Po
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Bullets, poem by Brayden, animated by Stas Santimov, part of the Preschool Poets, https://vimeo.com/254732533
Tabula Rasa, Poetry Night, The Rights Studio Festival 2021, https://rights-studio.org/festival/tabula-rasa/
Voices of Future Generations, What Lies Beneath: Movement, poetry contributions from children from around the world.
“When an Elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” African Proverb