Why is poetry important to you personally?
Poetry, both reading and writing it, is my way of being in the world. It’s my way of paying attention. Of picking the world apart to look at it closely.
My parents are both biologists who might say they were drawn to science for the same reason: as a way to understand. Their parents were artists and musicians, probably, in part, because of a need to process and understand. I became a poet because I wanted to do everything. I wanted to make art and music and study psychology and history and science and culture. Poetry was a way I could do all of that; it seemed like a snowball I could roll over anything I was interested in and pick it up. I could be curious about everything. So my books have in them news articles and science and video games and myth and history and my family and the plants and animals I think are interesting.
Reading poetry has the same draw. It’s a way to see how someone’s mind moves, how it pings around from orchids to liposuction to car alarms (as Kimiko Hahn’s “On Deceit as Survival” does) or how it drills down, down obsessively into one anxious question. A good poem always challenges me to work through some aspect of the world I share with other people.
Has your connection with poetry changed over time?
Sure. It’s become more public. When I was in high school, for instance, to read a poem and be moved or to write and be surprised by the words had a particular private joy, like a secret. And too, poetry felt daunting and unapproachable, and thus more extraordinary. I didn’t know anyone who was doing it—who was writing books of poems that might end up in the hands of a stranger, who, perhaps decades later, would feel that strange, private thrill.
Now that I (luckily, happily) do readings and publish and know a good number of poets all chatting about poetry on social media, etc., it’s more rare that I have that particular sense of being alone with a poem, really alone with my experience of it. And I do miss that.
Not that long ago poetry was memorized by school children and was published in newspapers and popular journals. That seems lost. Why do you think poetry is still an essential art form?
Why are school children, in general, not made to memorize anymore? Why are newspapers, in general, diminished and thin?
Neither answer has to do with a declining sense of esteem for poetry. I am always glad to talk about the worth of poetry, but, first, I’d like to say that I don’t think poetry needs a cheerleader in the way this question implies. There’s tons of it everywhere. Say what you will about instagram poetry (and I do have things to say about it, particularly that it may be useful to have a “young adult” delineation, as with YA fiction) but the fact that poems have become part of a social media feed, or that poems can go viral and end up on TV shows (as with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” on Madame Secretary) or that poets have YouTube channels and podcasts, or that online journals (devoted to everything from the most specific communities of under-represented voices to responses to the current pandemic) are popping up all the time—all this says everything you need to know about the particular human need for poetry. It seems, now, that a wider range of human experience and identity is being represented in poetry than ever before. Maybe it’s not in the newspaper anymore. Maybe it’s not on standardized tests. Maybe that’s all for the best.
Ok, so now for the other part of the question: why is it essential—and why it should be an important aspect of anyone’s life—I’m going to semi-plagiarize myself because 1) a writer never has enough time, and 2) I recently answered this question in an interview with the New England Review—except I was responding to a question about the worth of beauty, which, as it turns out, gets the same answer from me.
When I talk to my students about what a poem can do, I talk about how it can grant someone re-entry into their life. I.e., a reader, post-poem, is newly able to step back into what they have been seeing or feeling or thinking with an intensified awareness. Poems, I tell them, are anti-numb. And, of course, we are prone to numbness. In so many mind-boggling ways, the contemporary landscape of events demands numbness. To remain feeling, to maintain a connection to self, to the natural world, and to keep the sea of newstwitterhorror from washing over you requires this intensified awareness. The poem is a still corner in which to contend with a crystalline image, unexpected music, an utterance, to confront grief or joy—to have a moment with the kind of beauty that turns up your dials. And with the dials cranked, you are much more equipped to receive what keeps you feeling and not just numbly going about your life.
Rosalie Moffett is the author of Nervous System (Ecco) which was chosen by Monica Youn for the National Poetry Series Prize, and listed by The New York Times as a New and Notable book. She is also the author of June in Eden (OSU Press). She has been awarded the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writing workshops. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Believer, New England Review, Narrative, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Southern Indiana.