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Why We Need Poetry

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April is here again, and as you may know, that means National Poetry Month. As a poet, I am a little conflicted about this. I love that we get our own month. But maybe it also gives Americans the green light to ignore poetry May through March.

While we may not need poetry the way we need other things, like food, poetry does offer a kind of nourishment. The great American poet William Carlos William writes:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

We turn to poetry for a different kind of information than we get from news, a deeper mode of knowing, a lyrical wisdom.

This was especially the case after November 8. Poets.Org, the website for the Academy of American Poets, reported more visits to their site in the 48 hours after the election than in the previous four years.


In times of extremis, poetry comforts and connects us. It was Walt Whitman who said, "To have great poets there must be great audiences, too.' He knew that in order for poetry to participate in the ongoing conversation of democracy we have to make poetry part of our lives.

In fact, I think of the poem as a secular prayer. When the world deploys language at its worst, poetry delivers language at its best. Poems heighten our experience and emotions. But, as we've seen over the last few months, poems can also express our collective rage. I'm okay with this. Sometimes, prayers need to be angry.

Some people think that poetry is too much like the world - weird, complex, and too hard to understand. But, America, your poets have your back. Poetry is like the world: its beauty, its significance, its moments of clarity arise like the sweetest surprise.

And right now, we need some really good surprises more than one month a year.

With a Perspective, I'm Dean Rader.

Dean Rader is Chair of the English Department at the University of San Francisco.

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