Poetry Promotes Honesty, Reveals Feelings

CJ Blair, Columnist

“Poetry is more than just words in a strange order, CJ.” These were the words of my uncle, a well-known poet in my hometown, after reading my earliest attempts at poetry. I had written a handful of poems in high school but didn’t start writing in earnest until I decided to try and enter Oberlin’s Creative Writing program. To prepare myself, I started reading and writing poems for at least an hour a day. I had no intention of liking poetry, but I found that practicing it necessitates a way of thinking that was more honest and sobering than any I had tried before. Because of this, I realized I had to keep writing poetry to better understand my emotions and myself.

It makes sense that my uncle made the comment he did. When I started writing poems, I thought good poetry was all about the technical aspects such as the line-breaks and length of each stanza. This led to poems that looked like those of Sylvia Plath or W. B. Yeats on the page but were totally devoid of meaning. Then my uncle prompted me to ask a question: “Where is that light coming from?” He said that creative writing is a form of investigative journalism; it is the job of the writer to keep asking questions until they reach the idea they’re looking for.

This was hard for me to wrap my head around, but after we spoke, I returned to my notebook to try to figure out what he meant. I kept reading poems, but instead of imitating poets, I tried to write about whatever was on my mind. I was shocked by what I found. I had fervently argued that my interest in biology wouldn’t enter my poetry, but almost every new poem I wrote was about a tree or a fish. Further, I began to write about my emotions in a more frank and candid way than ever before. I had never told anyone about these feelings, but almost instinctively they appeared in my poetry once I changed my mindset.

The differences between prose and poetry may deter people from reading poems, but these distinctions can be reconciled by considering the objectives of each genre. While prose might try to tell a story or examine a character, poetry often attempts to explore one’s consciousness. Because poetry deals with words, there is a strong temptation to say flat-out what you’re thinking. Good poetry, however, subverts this desire and captures the process of reacting to something and trying to understand it. Whether that thing is a complex idea or a haunting memory, translating it into poetry forces you to put into words its effect on your mind without making blanket statements about how you feel.

This demands a level of honesty that many people may find unsettling, but it is necessary in order to produce meaningful poems. When you start to follow one idea, you quickly find it latched to a network of emotions, many of which you might want to keep hidden. In order to see where the light is coming from and why it’s in your vision, you must be willing to follow it wherever it goes. It should come as little surprise, then, that the great poet Anne Sexton started writing poetry to pinpoint the cause of her mental breakdowns.

The beauty of poetry lies in how it can be treated in similar ways by readers and writers and yet still feel deeply personal. Even if I fail to make it through the Creative Writing major, I can never stop writing poetry because it lets me gauge my emotional health and worldview in ways I never could. After one of our discussions about writing, my uncle left me with a quote from Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That quote is written on an index card taped to my desk, and I hope it will remind me to address my emotions with a poet’s honesty and value them in whatever form they appear to me.