Why Read Poetry?

Much of modern poetry is unintelligible or seems incoherent. That’s not modern poetry’s problem though. The problem with modern poetry is the absence of a general interest reader of poetry. Cautious readers avoid the crafted, arched bridges called poems precariously balanced over esoteric estuaries. But was there ever a general interest reader of poetry? Well, who filled the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre? Who did Walt Whitman write for? Why did Langston Hughes use the Blues? Who did Woody Guthrie sing to? Who listens to Bob Dylan?

A word about craft, to those poets who would sit down to “craft” a poem: One may write a poem, compose a poem, draw a poem, paint a poem, photograph a poem, fingerprint a poem, press a poem, memorize a poem, sing a poem, post a poem, but one crafts a toilet bowl gasket seal, crafts a kitchen cabinet, crafts a chair to sit on to scribble the poem. Let poets work for a living and craft their poems in their sleep. And let them be well rested and sober when they begin to speak.

Why would someone who does not read poetry suddenly start? Where would they begin? Any menu would look strange, even the crafted menu, maybe especially the crafted menu. Why would they taste anything on the table? It would look a strange feast: snake knuckles, chocolate covered roses. Most of the dishes the average reader wouldn’t even recognize as food. There’s little appetite for it, for poetry is strange. Yet here’s a poet craftily writing for an audience with a special hunger, Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” writing for those “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.”

I packed Rimbaud into my duffle bag a long time ago. “The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, entire…But the soul has to be made monstrous,” Rimbaud wrote in the preface to his Illuminations, where quickly things get “unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t know.” What did that mean? I didn’t know, but the “hare,” who “stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web,” I wanted to talk to, and the words curled up on the cold grate of reason and warmed one another, and soon started to glow and illuminate like candles of beeswax.

Yesterday in conversation with a colleague I was asked why I read poetry.

I am thankful for poetry. In the beginning was the word, and the word was posted to a tree, and around the tree gathered listeners and readers who began to talk among one another, even as the word was forgotten and fell to the ground and was buried in the falling leaves, and in the spring a young man out walking found the word now obscured from weather and compost and thought it said wood, or wode. This was the first reader of poetry, and Rimbaud’s Witch.

Arthur Rimbaud. Illuminations and Other Prose Poems. Trans. Louise Varese. Revised Edition. A New Directions Paperbook, 1957, NDP56.


  1. Dan Hennessy says:

    Good post . Never had snake knuckles . Might be good with spider spit soup .

    1. Joe Linker says:


  2. You provided me with the title to a poem I wrote just now, after a memorial gathering and some wonderful bag-pipe playing. We discussed things from beyond and – in the beginning was the word. I was inspired by the drone of the bag pipe, which gave rise to vast Scottish landscapes … The title is now – poetry :)

    thousand-and-one words fall to the ground
    and jewel the story of seasons’ rounds
    words re-join the dance to the drone
    of each new sound arising
    from beyond the ever
    open silence
    from beyond the ever
    of each new sound arising
    words re-join the dance to the drone
    and jewel the story of season’ rounds
    thousand-and-one words fall to the ground

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, the curve, the repetition, the open silence in the center, the droning ds along the edges, the continuous rising. Thanks for posting a poem to comments!

      1. On my blog now, improved, I think.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Yes, I saw. Good this: “…jewelling the story of seasons’ rounds”, and then the l sound repeated in “twirl.” And you repeated “open silence” this version.

  3. All this talk of poetry is waking up cravings to write the stuff again. This can only end badly.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      …yr right!

      All this talk
      can only end
      badly, all these cravy
      poets, talking.

      We should get
      rid of the stuff
      once and for all,
      wash our ears of it.

      But then we’d
      nothing to talk
      about. Yr right:
      this ended badly.

      Try again: we should
      get rid of the stuff.
      This can only end badly,
      all this waking.

  4. Babs Curia says:

    As always, I enjoyed. But, I don’t think I will be writing any poetry anytime soon!!

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thx, Barb. Well, but you could read some!

      1. Babs Curia says:

        You are right! I have a book, “The Best American Poems” that I have had since Jennifer and Chris were babies. I would read to them every evening and Chris’ favorite was “Billy Boy”. We would sing it together. It is a great book and I still go thru it from time to time. Send me a few titles and I will go to the library and look them up.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          Barbara: Will work on list. Might make it into a post.

  5. As always, it is a pleasure to read your work. I am reminded of the Mayan creation myth, as found in the Popular Vu

    “All was empty…, all was in silence…, all was motionless…there was only the sky and the sea . . . Then came the word . . . .”

    1. Joe Linker says:

      thx for this – this is good!:
      “Then came the word, like a lightning bolt it ripped through the sky,
      penetrated the waters, and fertilized the minds of the Earth-Water
      Deities, Tepeu and Gucumatz”

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