Last Wednesday, many across the country and the world were introduced to Amanda Gorman for the first time when she recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the presidential inauguration. I had previously encountered her poetry online and appreciate her effective oratorical style. I am also grateful that we have a first Youth Poet Laureate. I hope we will have many more. It’s critical that we continue to support the expressive arts in this country, even as so many in leadership are pushing schools to focus on STEM or STEAM.
The importance of effective communication cannot be downplayed as we move out of an era in America’s history when rhetoric became far too effective a vehicle for misinformation. Whether as individuals exploring our own lives and experiences, or through sharing the fruit of those experiences in more public ways, the use of poetry remains an important element of a life well-lived, rather than just endured.
Yet poetry is, in many ways, under siege. A friend of mine is a full professor of creative writing at a public university that is facing such severe financial strain that they plan to lay off as many as 100 tenured faculty, including my friend, who primarily teaches (and successfully publishes) poetry. Most of the layoffs will be in the Humanities, in large part because society is clamoring for more STEM.
Yet we need poetry, at every stage in our lives. Over the past half-dozen years, I have been honored to support (write blurbs about, provide photos for) a dear friend who has used poetry to help her survive a ten-year Alzheimer’s journey with her husband, Donald. Marge Burke has published four books that chronicle their journey. The first three books interweave poetry and prose, giving voice to their experiences in different ways. Her latest book is When Will Someday Come, a volume of poetry written as she remembered Donald’s final days and began living into her widowhood. Tangible images and eloquent emotions kept me right there with her as she moved along the path toward “living again.” Poets like Marge invite us into a deeper understanding of the journey of grief so many of us are facing today, whether death comes through Alzheimer’s, violence, accident, or COVID-19.
We need poets. We need poetry. We need to know our languages fully and understand how to use our words as creatively and effectively as possible. As individuals and as communities, we need to mark the moments and memories of our lives in inventive and powerful ways. We’ve been writing poetry for thousands of years—the Psalms being one of the most well-known examples.
I believe in the power of poetry. I’ve shared some of my poetry on this blog, and I will share more. I encourage you to support poetry in whatever ways you can. Buy books by poets like Marge and my friends Kelsea Habecker and Chris Salerno. Sign up online to receive a poem each day. Learn about poetry and consider writing your own poems. If you’re not sure where to start, use the Psalms as inspiration, like I have done.
How else might you support our culture’s deeper need for poetry today?