Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry

Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry

I read poetry all the time and write about it frequently and take poems apart to see how they work because I’m a word person. I understand the world best, most fully, in words rather than, say, pictures or numbers, and when I have a new experience or a new feeling, I’m a little frustrated until I can try to put it into words. I think I’ve always been that way. I devoured science fiction as a child. I still do. And I found poems by Andrew Marvell and Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats because they were quoted in science fiction, and I loved their sounds and I went on to read about ottava rima and medial caesuras and enjambment and all that other technical stuff that you care about if you already care about poems, because poems already made me happier and sadder and more alive. And I became a poetry critic because I wanted to know how and why. Now, poetry isn’t one thing that serves one purpose any more than music or computer programming serve one purpose. The greek word poem, it just means “a made thing,” and poetry is a set of techniques, ways of making patterns that put emotions into words. The more techniques you know, the more things you can make, and the more patterns you can recognize in things you might already like or love. That said, poetry does seem to be especially good at certain things. For example, we are all going to die. Poetry can help us live with that. Poems are made of words, nothing but words. The particulars in poems are like the particularities, the personalities, that distinguish people from one another. Poems are easy to share, easy to pass on, and when you read a poem, you can imagine someone’s speaking to you or for you, maybe even someone far away or someone made up or someone deceased. That’s why we can go to poems when we want to remember something or someone, to celebrate or to look beyond death or to say goodbye, and that’s one reason poems can seem important, even to people who aren’t me, who don’t so much live in a world of words. The poet Frank O’Hara said, “If you don’t need poetry, bully for you,” but he also said when he didn’t
want to be alive anymore, the thought that he wouldn’t write any more poems had stopped him. Poetry helps me want to be alive, and I want to show you why by showing you how, how a couple of poems react to the fact that we’re alive in one place at one time in one culture, and in another we won’t be alive at all. So here’s one of the first poems I memorized. It could address a child or an adult. “From far, from eve and morning From yon twelve-winded sky, The stuff of life to knit me Blew hither; here am I. Now — for a breath I tarry Nor yet disperse apart — Take my hand quick and tell me, What have you in your heart. Speak now, and I will answer; How shall I help you, say; Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters I take my endless way.” [A. E. Housman] Now, this poem has appealed to science fiction writers. It’s furnished at least three science fiction titles, I think because it says poems can brings us news from the future or the past or across the world, because their patterns can seem to tell you what’s in somebody’s heart. It says poems can bring people together temporarily, which I think is true, and it sticks in my head not just because it rhymes but for how it rhymes, cleanly and simply on the two and four, “say” and “way,” with anticipatory hints on the one and three, “answer” and “quarters,” as if the poem itself were coming together. It plays up the fact that we die by exaggerating the speed of our lives. A few years on Earth become one speech, one breath. It’s a poem about loneliness — the “I” in the poem feels no connection will last — and it might look like a plea for help ’til you get to the word “help,” where this “I” facing you, taking your hand, is more like a teacher or a genie, or at least that’s what he wants to believe. It would not be the first time a poet had written the poem that he wanted to hear. Now, this next poem really changed what I liked and what I read and what I felt I could read as an adult. It might not make any sense to you if you haven’t seen it before. “The Garden” “Oleander: coral from lipstick ads in the 50’s. Fruit of the tree of such knowledge To smack
(thin air) meaning kiss or hit. It appears in the guise of outworn usages because we are bad? Big masculine threat, insinuating and slangy.” [Rae Armantrout] Now, I found this poem in an anthology of almost equally confusing poems in 1989. I just heard that there were these scandalous writers called Language poets who didn’t make any sense, and I wanted to go and see
for myself what they were like, and some of them didn’t do much for me, but this writer, Rae Armantrout, did an awful lot, and I kept reading her until I felt I knew what was going on, as I do with this poem. It’s about the Garden of Eden and the Fall and the Biblical story of the Fall, in which sex as we know it and death and guilt come into the world at the same time. It’s also about how appearances deceive, how our culture can sweep us along into doing and saying things we didn’t intend or don’t like, and Armantrout’s style is trying to help us stop or slow down. “Smack” can mean “kiss” as in air kisses, as in lip-smacking, but that can lead to “smack” as in “hit” as in domestic abuse, because sexual attraction can seem threatening. The red that means fertility can also mean poison. Oleander is poisonous. And outworn usages like “smack” for “kiss” or “hit” can help us see how our unacknowledged assumptions can make us believe we are bad, either because sex is sinful or because we tolerate so much sexism. We let guys tell women what to do. The poem reacts to old lipstick ads, and its edginess about statement, its reversals and halts, have everything to do with resisting the language of ads that want to tell us so easily what to want, what to do, what to think. That resistance is a lot of the point of the poem, which shows me, Armantrout shows me what it’s like to hear grave threats and mortal dishonesty in the language of everyday life, and once she’s done that, I think she can show other people, women and men, what it’s like to feel that way and say to other people, women and men who feel so alienated or so threatened that they’re not alone. Now, how do I know that I’m right about this somewhat confusing poem? Well in this case, I emailed
the poet a draft of my talk and she said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s about it.” Yeah. (Laughter) (Applause) But usually, you can’t know. You never know. You can’t be sure, and that’s okay. All we can do we is listen to poems and look at poems and guess and see if they can bring us what we need, and if you’re wrong about some part of a poem, nothing bad will happen. Now, this next poem is older than Armantrout’s, but a little younger than A. E. Housman’s. “The Brave Man” “The sun, that brave man, Comes through boughs that lie in wait, That brave man. Green and gloomy eyes In dark forms of the grass Run away. The good stars, Pale helms and spiky spurs, Run away. Fears of my bed, Fears of life and fears of death, Run away. That brave man comes up From below and walks without meditation, That brave man.” [Wallace Stevens] Now, the sun in this poem, in Wallace Stevens’ poem, seems so grave because the person in the poem is so afraid. The sun comes up in the morning through branches, dispels the dew, the eyes, on the grass, and defeats stars envisioned as armies. “Brave” has its old sense of showy as well as its modern sense, courage. This sun is not afraid to show his face. But the person in the poem is afraid. He might have been up all night. That is the reveal Stevens
saves for that fourth stanza, where run away has become a refrain. This person might want to run away too, but fortified by the sun’s example, he might just rise. Stevens saves that sonically odd word “meditation” for the end. Unlike the sun, human beings think. We meditate on past and future, life and death, above and below. And it can make us afraid. Poems, the patterns in poems, show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened but what it was like to be a person like that, to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave. That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and so ephemeral, like something inside and outside you at once. The Scottish poet Denise Riley compares poetry to a needle, a sliver of outside I cradle inside, and the American poet Terrance Hayes wrote six poems called “Wind in a Box.” One of them asks, “Tell me, what am I going to do when I’m dead?” And the answer is that he’ll stay with us or won’t stay with us inside us as wind, as air, as words. It is easier than ever to find poems that might stay inside you, that might stay with you, from long, long ago, or from right this minute, from far away or from right close to where you live, almost no matter where you live. Poems can help you say, help
you show how you’re feeling, but they can also introduce you to feelings, ways of being in the world, people, very much unlike you, maybe even people from long, long ago. Some poems even tell you that that is what they can do. That’s what John Keats is doing in his most mysterious, perhaps, poem. It’s mysterious because it’s probably unfinished, he probably left it unfinished, and because it might be meant for a character in a play, but it might just be Keats’ thinking about what his own writing, his handwriting, could do, and in it I hear, at least I hear, mortality, and I hear the power of older poetic techniques, and I have the feeling, you might have the feeling, of meeting even for an instant, almost becoming, someone else from long ago, someone quite memorable. “This living hand, now warm and capable Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood So in my veins red life might stream again, And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is — I hold it towards you.” Thanks. (Applause)

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

100 thoughts on “Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry

  1. I honestly don't think I need much poetry.

    1. Songs – Yes, you can consider them poetry, but to me, they are different. Songs can actually sound good, but plain poetry to me is just words, and I don't see the beauty or whatever in them.
    2. "Deeper meaning", symbolism, etc. – Some people read literature for these things, and others don't. I'm one of those other people. I don't see where people come up with symbolism and that kind of stuff. (I hate analyzing literature if you can't tell, which also means I hate English class. Might just be that I [severely] lack creativity/imagination)
    3. Poetry helping me deal with death – No, it does not. Maybe for some people, but not me personally. I find literature generally meaningless (Besides what it clearly says)… until my English teacher forces meaning (especially symbolism and theme) onto it.

    Anyone have any other reasons for having poetry to discuss?

  2. We don't need poetry… not anymore.  Fiction, literature are still important, but poetry isn't; that is, unless you consider music poetry.

  3. Less "drama" in his voice would make it much better … Probably some sort of Coach told him to put more "emotions" in his talk … well then …

  4. Brilliant talk! I wish more people would sit down with a William Blake collection, or whatever, and see the beauty and importance of poetry. We are spoiled by the plethora of musical poetry and other art forms. I pray we keep this beautiful art alive!

  5. Poetry is simply an extension of day to day speech. Not appreciating poetry is like owning a car and only ever driving it in first gear.

  6. Why does he have TO SHOUT SO MUCH???
    I feel that analysing a poem destroys it, I know there are hidden meanings etc, but I like taking things just as they are. 

  7. It's disheartening to me to see so many people commenting that they don't need poetry or to analyze poetry or have supplemented poetry with another art form. Poetry captures all of our most shared, private longings that make us human. Which is what all art tries to do on some level. Just because other forms of art may do that don't discount the power of pure language that only poetry can bring. And that power of language, although beautiful and meaningful on the surface, unravels and emerges as much more moving when analyzed.

  8. I've never really tried to read much poetry or get into reading it. But you know what? I might just give it more of a try after this. Thanks Stephen, amazing talk 🙂

  9. Poetry, art and music all seem to live within a place that's between emotion and structure. These medias touch us so much I think because that place between logic and feeling is I think where we most naturally live, and where we feel most alive.

  10. One of the most annoying speakers i'v sow on ted. The way he talks and his body language – gosh. 
    On another note – most of those literallyculturalart critics, especially those academic types are full of BS most of the time.

  11. Poetry is one of the great unifying forces. It comes out of every culture and is much older than written language. The ritual of writing, reading, and listening to verse symbolically connects all human cultures throughout history, and can put the individual in touch with this history.

  12. Poetry is something we have through out generations, it might not be useful but again, not everything have to be useful to kept, not being useful to left, poetry Is a tradition, it's something brings a child outside of us within, it would be a huge loss of human cultural to abandon poetry.

  13. Poen do help us to overcome from our depressed mood. it'll make us happy, It 'll get our mind away from this world…… it's similar like music……..

  14. Hello, fellow YouTube commentators. i beg you, take a read at my shallow poetry for English class. Please feel free to critique.

    How to budget

    If you're lost in lavish ways 
    Break that trend and make a change 
    And you'll avoid those starving days 

    If there's an option, stroll, don't drive 
    And power your car 
    With the power of love 
    And faith, who needs gas anyways? 

    On credit cards don't bet, 
    On cash you must depend 
    For you can't be in debt 
    If there's nothing to spend 

    Prepare your meals yourself 
    Foodbanks and friend's fridges 
    Are the way to go 
    Live off the shelf 
    To keep your money worries low 

    spend more than you make 
    And the bank will get your home 
    Or basement 
    Or cardboard box 
    Whatever you've got 
    They'll take the lot.  

  15. Good discussion. Not smart video editing at the end though, camera should have stayed with the written poem.

  16. There are a lot of people who reject poetry. I used to be like that I think (not so long ago)… But I can't take them seriously anymore.

    When they read a poem these people realize the emptiness inside themselves… they don't feel anything when they read it (and that's okay, at first) so they blame the poem for being empty/worthless/a waste of time (or poetry in general)… But once you got past that introspective disappointment, once you realize that poetry is not necessarily "love at first sight" like people want you to believe it is, but that it's a love that needs to be nurtured… then you can start enjoying poetry, focus on the poem instead of your little Ego and the emotions you expect the product to deliver. At least that's how I changed. 

    Poems shape your experience in a profound way, it is "useful" in that sense, although that word makes me want to vomit when I taste it in the mouths of people debating about poetry. But what can we do ? "Usefulness" became our God. Poetry could help us get out of that situation, but there's a very potent vicious circle going on.

    I think poetry needs people. The evidence is in the silly comments posted below this video. People feel smart when they criticize poetry because poetry is usually seen as "smart" ( meaning "too smart for you", it's intimidating ). I want poetry to become cool. I want people to stop putting their serious faces on when we talk about poetry and say that "it's interesting" or "it's boring". No. "This is beautiful" or "I don't get this particular poem" will suffice.

  17.  im telling you that poems are like riddles, archetypes of the mind and the symbology behind our own perception.
    if the autor is enlightened it can awake you , only if you are of those who know where to look, otherwise you just read them and feel the emptiness, it seems about right because only the true hearted soul enters heaven. and yes heaven is on earth and it begins with the word, thats all we know hidden in maya.

  18. "Jack and jill went up the hill to have
    some hanky panky,stupid Jill forgot her pill,and here comes the little Frankie!"

    How was this,good or bad???

  19. I am a deep lover of poetry and completely depend on it. The man is completely right! I actually wrote a poem as I watched this video and am very pleased with the results:)

  20. It is barbaric to know nothing about poetry. It is more than a tradition, it is a part of our collective unconscious. It is also ridiculous to say you don't enjoy ANY poetry. The human mind enjoys speech, and it enjoys rhythm. When you put rhythm into speech, you get poetry, and the mind responds to it.

  21. I love how you can hear the influence of poetry in the way he speaks, like how his cadence and inflections are very alive. =]

  22. Poetry and in fact, literature for that matter is the best form of expression. I've just started my own YouTube channel and upload new poems every Monday! You can check it out on my channel!🎉

  23. My teacher forced us to watch this to learn about poetry… But all I learned is that I hate poetry. Who made up this curriculum anyhow!?

  24. Poems are physical expressions, of spiritual experiences. Poems are words, that convey the emotional reality, of the conversation one has had with the Universe. A poet is more than a wordsmith, the poet is natures original scribe. The poet expresses in the elegance of rythm and ryme the emotional state of the human race. All words represent a reality, so therefore, all words are poems. So if all words are poetry in themselves, representing the idea/reality it is trying to convey, then all those who use language are poets. We all use our words to explain that which is both seen and unseen. And that is the poets role. To reveal both the visible and invisible, through the beautiful medium of language. All men are poets, some are just to lazy to find the language to express their message.

  25. Ive read poetry from diverse poeta but i dont seem attached emotionally to any . Does poetry really have to engage the emotional aspect of some person in order to understand it? What am i missing to understanding poetry? Why does poetry need to direct itself to the emotional aspect of a human?

  26. Check out Rumi..good stuff. also check "Poem by rumi . . . Reading by Madonna. . . for you .
    also Rumi ~ A Gift of Love … Demi Moore .

  27. Lots of people quick to judge the entire medium of poetry! Just because you don't "get it" doesn't mean that piece of art is bad. Appreciating art means trying to understand. Poetry is the ultimate portal of philosophy and emotion.

  28. Steve Burt gave a talk not long ago where he said not to read poetry, but to read poems. This is relevant to how one can avoid hating on poetry.

  29. great,
    for that very reason,
    I tried to set to music the words of Emily Dickinson.
    Poetry is a time machine, just a puff on the dust

  30. Hi guys! I am doing a university project with Diego Astore an Italian writer. We want to publish a collection of his works. I need some support on the facebook page. Please like and share!

  31. soooo beautiful I know this feeling of reading a poem It's like reading yourself. I love poetry so much and thnx for this amazing speech

  32. Poetry is an ancient tool for helping people understand their experiences of life. It also allows them to view experiences they might not have experieced and gain more empathy with the experience. It is a cultural thing passed on from generation to generation. From my own experience poetry is cathartic and helps us process grief, loss and adversity. Finally it suffuses our lives with emotion with having feelings about what we experience or read, in the case of poetry. In a time of over emphasis on science, technology & business poetry is that balance that provides pause for reflection, for thinking about our society, about our technology, about everyday issues like poverty, depression and social media technology, and urban over population and social isolation. Poetry allows us to go beyond our everday at times mundane human existences.

  33. Poetry has been taught very poorly by our institutions. In a secular world, poetry and philosophy should be pursuits of the people and guide us through our lives.

  34. This better be a damn good reason, I don't appreciate having spent hours trying to figure out what someone means to say about love…, just say what you mean dammit

  35. Poetry heaves from the mouths of every man,
    It steams from the mouths of children,
    It soars from mothers, and aunts in living rooms.
    It oozes from greasy fish stained docks on the sea

    Poetry sets the night ablaze
    It warms the bedroom and crowds the street
    It runs on sidewalks in sheets to cracks in the earth
    It's glowing embers in the Smithy's forge

    It flows in merging rivers to the cosmos.
    High above in the stratosphere it lies in wait.
    It suspends us there standing in an icy stream
    Weightless, void, sunlit, cold squeaking as we walk.

    Look no further for words my children
    Don't probe in the compost of lost ideas
    No climbing to temples of harsh solitude
    Neither shall ye be silenced by dullness

    It is only to speak, and find some comprehension
    No matter how dim, or faint in the breeze.
    There it lurks intruding breaking new ground
    On the last day of man's existence we will hear it still.

    @ C. Peter Mullen, by permission.

  36. Poetry is not only imagination but also reality it just depends upon man how he perceives it's core meaning

  37. This is pure garbage. This fool of a non-man is wrong about everything. He muddles the soul of real poetry with his disgusting words and hurts the ones that need poetry the most. He needs to shut the eff up and crawl back under the caveman rock he came from. If you want to see real poetry Google "Josef Wolff Poetry" and you will see real poems and truth. Not this bullshit lies.


  39. That was the longest spoken word performance ever witnessed 😅 all kidding aside, the presentation was somewhat poetic in and of itself.

  40. each life will eventually turn to thunder now purpose is torn in a storm, tears will rain from the sky of your brain just a vast empty pain of cloudy cerebral veins, such demise disguised as lies waving in tides that oceans our eyes, with subtle ease we breathe always ending in breeze blowing all wind nobody can see except for dancing hypnotic green trees, just forever grammatical all storms concede with a horizon most dramatical a smile now freed…

  41. people don't need poetry- the human brain merely is pattern recognition oriented and perceives the humanly perceivable realm we call reality in terms of repeated patterns and ancient societies used mnemonic devices such a rhythm and rhyme to transmit oral information and poetry is just recreational verbiage that is made equally architecturally pleasing as to how rats infected with toxoplasma gondii enjoy cat piss

  42. Long in gloom I sat with her, crying, wailing my heart and soul.

    For doom beat me to her – the beautiful, Elliva Tor – then I felt a hole, deep in my heart and soul.

    And as I cradled her humiliated corpse, thinking what horrors befell her, suddenly, I felt an ominous presence sneaking, its fowl stench creeping.

    Then my heart and soul started sinking and then I started thinking, what creature is this creaking, and what for does it loom before me and Elliva Tor?

    “No creature,” it said. “Crinus the Mor.”

    “Crinus the Mor?” I repeated. “Of terrible yore?”

    And then Crinus said, “Yes, you know me sure.”

    “Why, of course,” I said. “I have read your lore.”

    “Oh…then you must know the horrors that I bore.”

    “Yes…and still bear,” I snapped.

    As he chuckled and clapped.

    “And do you think I have come to ensnare?”

    “Or perhaps I have simply stumbled upon your lair?”

    “In witness of your dead friend…aww, so unfair.”

    “Do not mock my friend.”

    “It is not my intention to offend – only my hand I wish to lend.”

    As I turned, I discerned.

    Thick heavy rustling robes of rotten meat and flesh, fresh in my eyes now shot with threat.

    As I stared with regret at his grotesque rotting skull-like face.

    My fearful heart risking it all at its fastest pace.

    His eyes like red moons glaring, transfixing me.

    And now, in all this red terror, my deepest wish is to be free.

    And then Crinus said, “A deal I offer thee.”

    Then I thought, what deal hath he?

    Then Crinus said, “Your word, for the kingdom of darkness.”

    “My word, for the kingdom of darkness, where all lies heartless, surely you know I won’t accept such madness.”

    “In darkness and madness, I promise gladness.”

    “Never can my word remove this sadness.”

    “Forever, your word, will bring you solace, for the kingdom of darkness, for horror, for terror, for evil, for I, Crinus the Mor, shall avenge my greatest enemy, the most beautiful, most kindest, altruist, Elliva Tor.”

    And as I thought long and hard about his offer while he displayed infinite patience in total darkness, eventually, I gave my answer – or should I say, my word.

    “With the death of Elliva Tor, the kingdom of darkness has already risen. I demand that you remove the mask from the world, this lie of light. I demand you convince the world how ugly sin has made it. I demand that at men’s despair, you reject forgiveness, you reject mercy. I give you my word. In the name of Elliva Tor, purge.”

    And then Crinus placed his branch-like hand into his vile mouth, and pulled from the black abyss of his throat, a creature, so small in between his finger and thumb, so black, making such feeble unintelligible noises, flailing its many arms and legs.

    “What is that ghastly thing?” I asked.

    “A seed…and once planted, it will sing.”

    “Sing? A song…but what will it bring?”

    “Why…the kingdom of darkness, of course, and a new king.”

    Then he placed this tiny restless creature on Elliva’s ghostly chest, and then it started eating through her breast, burrowing deep inside. Then, as Elliva’s corpse started convulsing, there was a harrowing scream.

    What have I done, I thought.

    It seemed as if the world was about to end, if not now, then certainly soon.

    The ground shook violently.

    The light died, its best it tried.

    Darkness consuming all.

    Then…the darkness gave form – from Elliva, come – the kingdom of infinite horrors.

  43. Sire…sire…please don’t call me a liar, for I swear I have not destroyed your pen outside of this beautiful empire.

    I am your lord, Avoris, and the truth of my pen, I aspire.

    But please, my lord, my ruler, my sire, I do not know; I swear I do not know where your pen is, for I am no liar.

    Liar, liar, but your clever lies, I do admire, but the truth of your treachery I solely desire.

    But what truth can I offer, if I am no liar?

    Why, your soul, entire.

    My soul entire? For the truth you require? How my soul, do you expect to acquire?

    Why, gods, rulers, miracles are my attire, and so your soul, with divine fire, I will tire; your soul, in you, the liar, and I will witness your soul retire.

    Please, my sire, spare me this grief, for I would never provoke your ire.

    I know it is you, Avoris, my squire, who stole my pen for your own desire, you stole it from me when we past that spire, for it was your wish, against me, to conspire.

    My lord, my sovereign, my sire, I swear I did not take the pen, I couldn’t have…please believe that I am no liar.

    I do care for you, my squire, but I do not believe that you are no liar; I see your lies lifting you higher, higher, with your mind on fire, into my wrath, entire. I see your soul, so dire, surrounded by my divine slaves: the gods, the miracles, all disguised as my attire…Avoris, let the truth transpire, save your soul, and for once…be no liar.

    Okay…it was me who stole your pen, but I did not destroy it in divine fire, I couldn’t, I wanted to but I couldn’t because I lost it prior.

    I know, Avoris, I know you did not destroy my pen, for I already have it back. It came back to me, Avoris, and it told me everything. And that is how I knew you were a liar, and now I shall take your soul, and watch it burn in divine fire.

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