When You Don’t Know What to Say, Try Poetry

In her book Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher wrote:

Language imparts identity, meaning, and perspective to our human community. Writers are either polluters or part of the clean-up team. Just as the language of power and greed has the potential to destroy us the language of reason and empathy has the power to save us. Writers can inspire a kinder, fairer, more beautiful world, or incite selfishness, stereotyping, and violence. Writers can unite people or divide them. [p. 14, Writing to Change the World, Riverhead Books, 2006]

I hope her thoughts encourage us to listen closely, to realize the power of our words, and then, when we choose to use them, to use our words well and use them for good.

But what if we don’t know what to say?

The Power of Poetry

A Tweetspeak Poetry article highlighted the healing power of poetry through an interview with Gerda and Kurt Klein. Kurt was an American lieutenant who arrived at a concentration camp just after it was liberated. Gerda had been imprisoned in the camp and brought the lieutenant into a factory where female prisoners lay on scant beds of straw, sick and skeletal, many with the look of death, barely moving.

Kurt recalls his first interaction with Gerda, where she made a sweeping gesture over the scene, and quoted a line from the German poet Goethe, “Noble be man, merciful and good.”

Kurt said, “I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem…at such a moment. And there was nothing she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than what she did.”

I was struck by the power of poetry in that moment, for Kurt, for Gerda. In the midst of suffering, she had that line ready. She connected with Kurt. As he said, she “underscored the grim irony of the situation” with one phrase, one line.

Turn to Poetry

When you don’t know what to say, try poetry. It’s what we can turn to when our own words would fall flat. As Emily Dickinson reminds us, it gives us a way to tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

An article at Vox suggests we turn to poetry, because “[a]rt can help us express what is otherwise too difficult to stomach. It can help us bear witness actively, and it can strengthen our souls for the work we need to do.”

The Atlantic also noticed how many people turned to poetry in recent days and interviewed Don Share, chief editor of Poetry magazine, about this phenomenon.

He responded:

What poetry does is it puts us in touch with people who are different from ourselves — and it does so in a way that isn’t violent. It’s a way of listening. When you’re reading a poem, you’re listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying…It says, “Here’s what it’s like from my point of view.”
The poem is a catalyst where you’re bringing two different kinds of people together. And at its best, when it works, there’s a kind of spark, and everyone comes away illuminated by what the spark has ignited.

Poetry: A Prescription for Adversity

Though author and poet Megan Willome and I already knew each other, a poem of mine created a deeper connection for us. She included it in her book The Joy of Poetry, setting it up like this:

The following poem was written after a tragedy the poet didn’t feel ready to talk about. That information is not in the text. But a year or so later, when there was a national tragedy, she reposted the poem on her blog, realizing it might have value for other people in their moments of heartbreak. Maybe they didn’t want to talk either. Maybe they were standing in a kitchen, breaking eggs to make a pie.

The poem:

This morning,
I cradled empty eggshells
in the palm of my hand
where they rested:
I touched one of the points
of their jagged edges
and then
lay them gently
on a soft
Midwinter sun
filtered through clouds — 
through windowpanes streaked by rain — 
shed muted light
on silent mourning.

Willome offers some observations you can use in your own poetry.

The poem makes great use of the sense of touch. It uses words like cradle, palm, jagged, and soft. This pain of mourning the poet feels — it’s tactile.
The other sense explored is sight, but everything is translucent. The sun is “filtered.” The windowpanes, “Streaked.” The light is “muted.” Nothing is clear. When something catastrophic happens, our world becomes unclear. Our glasses are gone. We reach out raw hands to feel our way through.
My favorite part is these three words without any punctuation: smooth/fragile/broken. Yes, that’s how it feels when life cracks.

Willome concludes with this:

Poetry is my prescription for adversity. It can touch hidden places in ways prose can’t. When I am heartbroken and read a poem that seems to have been written from someone else’s dark place, I can sit among the broken eggshells and know I’m not alone. I don’t need to know how the eggshells got broken. (pp. 107–108, The Joy of Poetry, T. S. Poetry Press)

Say It Straightforward or Slant

Sometimes poetry, or poetic devices, like metaphor, for example, help us say what we’re thinking or feeling or experiencing. Sometimes these techniques help us say what we struggle to say in more straightforward ways.

Say what you need to say. Tell your story. Tell it straightforward if you feel that’s best. Or tell it slant. But when the time is right — and I think you will know — tell it with poetry or poetically. Instead of blasting the reader with lightning bolts, we can dazzle gradually, “Or every man be blind.”

Let’s let our light shine. As Don Share said in The Atlantic interview, “when it works, there’s a kind of spark, and everyone comes away illuminated.”

Originally published as a podcast episode and blog post at annkroeker.com.

As an author, speaker, and writing coach, Ann Kroeker helps writers reach their writing goals by providing resources and inspiration to be more curious, creative, and productive. In her podcast Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, at her blog, and on Twitter @annkroeker, she curates and shares resources for startup, emerging, and established writers.

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