Honesty of Poetry Makes for Important, Educational Reads

Writer Noah Reese-Clauson discusses the importance of poetry and its impact on readers.

Last weekend I watched “The Big Short” for the first time. The film features a series of quotes that flash across the screen at different points in the movie, one of which struck me.

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

As a journalist, poet and poetry reader, I felt a little targeted despite agreeing with the film’s insight.

Between truth and poetry, the latter is usually more openly criticized — people who don’t like the truth don’t tend to call it that — so I’ll attempt to defend it. I do, however, think it’s important to note that the two ideas are even more intertwined, as the honesty of poetry is what makes it great. Poetry can be an important tool for understanding the variation of human emotion and experience, along with a way to find words that express the reader’s feeling.

My guess is the dislike of poetry stems, partially, from lack of approachability. Poetry, in some cases, is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” as William Wordsworth put it in his essay “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” meaning it can be a surge of emotion put to words. When one isn’t in a comparable state, that sort of verse can be challenging to engage with. 

Novels and stories show the variation of experience but usually don’t examine moments with the honesty or intimate perspective of poems. The reader is carried on a journey with the characters where they experience the same hardships and joys from a distance. With poetry, there’s often no narrative to lead you to the speaker’s emotional state. You need to match the mood of the piece or try to figure it out through context yourself instead of relying on the story to pull you in.

There is value to engaging with other people’s naked thoughts. When Maya Angelou wrote “And I have no pity,” in “No No No No,” I doubt she expected all readers to feel as she did. The expectation when reading poetry shouldn’t necessarily be finding a relatable line but understanding how the speaker feels and what got them there. I didn’t know anyone thought like that before I read the poem.

Ocean Vuong has a similarly polarizing line in his poem “Beautiful Short Loser.” 

“I mean it when I say I’m mostly / male. That I recall every follicle in the failure the way they’ll / remember god after religion: alone, impossible & good,” Vuong wrote.

This line is more complex than Angelou’s, but both talk of feelings some readers probably haven’t experienced and many people would disagree with. There are a variety of views on gender fluidity and atheism all around the world and if the reader dissents Vuong’s experience and doesn’t consider how he got there, of course they won’t enjoy the work. If the reader judges the speaker without searching for validity in their experience, the reader is engaging with poetry in the wrong way. 

In many cases, poetry is a collection of vulnerable thoughts. If the reader passes judgment on the writer, they are missing out on an opportunity to understand the expansiveness and diversity of human thought.

A piece can be honest without being argumentative. The speaker doesn’t necessarily believe they see things the right way, but they are likely being honest about how they see the world.

Not all poetry is as emotional as Wordsworth’s definition suggests. In “An answer to a Man’s Question, ‘What Can I Do About Women’s Liberation?’” Susan Griffin instructs male readers to effectively live as women are expected. She starts by telling men to wear dresses and progresses to instructing them to borrow a child and stay home with them. 

“Still, you wouldn’t know the half of it, not in a million years,” Griffin concludes after her long list of implausible demands.  

Griffin’s poem is a response to a question that follows a narrative. It’s a testament to the vagueness of the term “poetry” and the honesty of the platform.

Poetry doesn’t have to be for everybody, just like how sports, films and novels are not for everyone. 

I don’t expect hordes of students to flock to the library looking for Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath after reading this article. However, I do think there are unique artistic qualities to poetry that can enhance our understanding of human feeling. 

There are many ways to understand the differences between people but few are as intimate and honest as poetry. 

Featured image by Aidan Cahill / The Phoenix

Noah Reese-Clauson

Noah Reese-Clauson