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Essay: The value of poetry

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  • The value of poetry
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“A good piece of writing should be clear and easily understandable, it should be effective at conveying your ideas and have a uniform structuring with 5 paragraphs. Each writing should compose of: introduction, 3 reasons, and a conclusion at the end of the essay. Each reason that you raise should compose of a claim, an explanation and an example…”

This is what my high school English teacher taught me and as a science majored student, I loved it. I loved it so much that I stopped treating writing as a creative art but an equation that all I have to do is pluck in numbers and get an answer for it. The more the essay follows the writing formula the better, at least that’s what I have been told.

On the opposite of the bandwidth lies poetry. I didn’t like poetry at all, it is an abomination, a weird dream that only exists because there are some weirdos liking a bit of non-sense in their life. There are way more paragraphs than five. There are no examples or explanations or any of the usual layout in a paragraph that is taught in class. What is in the poem is strange words that were used in the 70’s or some awkward reference to movies or TV shows back in the day that no one remembers. I understand why you roll your eyes and stare at the ceiling when you hear the word poem from your English teacher, I understand why you face palm and text FML to your friends when you see a poem in your homework. Just look at It is not fun! It is confusing and misleading like walking in a jungle with no compass. Just look at a stanza from poem “Things I Will Tell My Children About Destiny” by Cynthia Manick:

A body grieved
is a whole new body.
Give your shadow a name
big as a star, see
yourself out loud.
Pick wild irises
the best gifts
roll under a ribcage, leave
open mouths splendid.

What does give your shadow a name means? Is there a clear argument here? Is this writing? Where is the five paragraphs that I am used to see? These are the questions that I was so confused about and for the confusion, I hated poetry, just like you. This is what I used to feel about poetry and the reason I turned to academic essays and scientific papers. They are much more concrete with examples and clear arguments. They don’t leave rooms for interpretation or misunderstanding. Writers show what they mean and mean what they say. And most importantly, why would you need to learn how to read a poem anyway? Knowing how to write a five-paragraph essay should be enough to give you the score you want in the SAT or ACT examination that you are about to face. Poem just seems like a waste of time, or is it?

Academic writing is indeed straight forward and easily understandable, but you will be missing out if you stick to academic essays or scientific papers for the rest of your life like what I did before. Marianne Moore once said: “Poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (Oliver,1994). Unlike academic essays that carries logistic and systematic reasoning, poem bring wild, imagery and they are thought provoking and reflecting. And to enjoy the artistic value or the deep ideas that the author hide under the curtain, we must first understand how a poem make meaning. Most of the time, poems make meaning with imagery.

Mary Oliver once wrote “the language of the poem is the language of particulars. Without it, poetry might still be wise, but it would surely be pallid. And thin. It is detailed, sensory language incorporating images that gives the poem dash and tenderness. And authenticity.” (Oliver, 1994)

One of the main way that poem communicate with the readers is through imagery and metaphor. Poems are usually less direct but more artistically oriented. Unlike a scientific paper and academic essays, poems follow the rule of show, don’t tell. Poem is defined as a “piece of writing in which the words are carefully chosen for the images and ideas they suggest, and in which the sounds of the words when read aloud often follow a particular rhythmic pattern” in Cambridge dictionary (poem, n.d). Although this may sound overwhelmingly complicated for people like us who work with numbers and figures all day, we actually experience imagery day to day. Our day to day visit: Facebook or YouTube uses imagery extensively by literally showing us pictures and videos so we can have a better insight on the perspective of the video maker or the photographer. Snap Chat also uses pictures and captions to broadcast what the sender is looking at a piece of world around the photographer. In poems, however, the same idea is shaped with words. Poems uses words and languages to construct an image, to invite the readers into the world the poet wants to show, and by showing the world, the poem can suggest its argument through emotional appeals. It is not that different from a Facebook post that showcase the corruption of a government by uploading images of rioting or the poor living condition of the citizens.

For example, in the poem: Fear and Fame by Philip Levine spent a long time describing the worker’s work place and constructing how the workplace looked and filled with danger with metaphors to battlefield. The whole poem is quoted below:

Fear and Fame

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

In the first few lines, the poet is describing his action with vivid image and metaphors. The poet showed the readers he is dressing up for work with hip boots, gauntlets, plastic helmet and respirator. This laid the foundation of a scent of danger and fear in the poem and aroused the readers with the knowledge of what the people in the poem are doing and it is dangerous and need a lot of protection. If we continue reading, we will find even more evidence on how the poet make use of world construction and metaphors to show instead of telling what the author has in mind:

“A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire.”

This short segment of the essay described to the readers what the worker in the factory is doing. The worker is mixing different kinds of acid and making a solution that would clean the metal salts. The author then refers the solution as a burning stew to remind readers about the violent nature of the solution. However, there is more in the poem than describing the scenery that the author is in. After making the solution, the poet compares the worker as a messenger from the kingdom of fire and showed that the worker has brought message of the completion of his tasks. And with the metaphor of knight putting on armors and going into a battlefield, it is not hard to understand that the author thinks that he is working on an honorable job and want the same gratitude from the people as a knight. However, at the end of the poem, the poem also showed that all the “fame” that the author gets for working in such a dangerous environment is getting a cold shower to rinse off any residue chemicals and he smokes to ease the upset he felt. These are all metaphors and images that the author wants readers to understand and envision. They combined to tell a story of the dangerous environment the workers have to face and how the workers feel, with the images and metaphors while showing the readers that the author is very upset that he couldn’t get any attention and honor for working in such a difficult environment. And at this very moment, the power of the imagery review itself.

If we take a closer look at the poem I mentioned above, you will see the author not only showing readers his working environment and his upset about the attention he receives, he also tries to influence the reader’s emotion with those imagery and metaphors. In the poem Fear and Fame by Philip Levine, the image that Philip Levine portrait is dangerous, harsh, risky and negative. With this image in mind, the readers will start to feel the empathy for the characters inside of the poem and pity them for having to work in such a harsh environment. With the feeling integrated into the readers, readers can understand the argument and even agree with the viewpoints from the author as the author finally brings up the attention and honor he should have received from the public for working in such a difficult and dangerous environment. This provokes the readers into thinking if they have been taking things for granted without even acknowledging the sacrifice and harshness others have to endure.

It is said that a picture contains thousands of words, but to me, a poem far outplayed an image as it carries not only the image itself, but also an idea, a piece of emotion, a gentle touch of comfort that tingles our soul. A piece of poem is an art, a piece of art that bring us more than pure enjoyment and the satisfaction of decoding and understanding what it means. The value of a poem is how thought provoking it is. Poem can be a reflection of a society or simply a person’s idea of what is right or wrong. With poem, we have the opportunity to understand what the poet thinks and we can reflect on ourselves with that value just like we engage in a self-reflection on if we have been taking things for granted without giving the credit to those who worked for it when we read the poem: fear and fame. I believe that imagery is one of the main way that a poet communicates with us and with imagery, we just got ourselves the best ticket to witness the greatest collection of films at the backseat of the cinema.

Reference page
Mary Oliver,  A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1994
Poem.(n.d). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from:

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