In Praise of Poetry

I’m a latecomer to poetry. I had to read and write my fair share in high school and college, but I put little effort into understanding and appreciating poetry. Any attempts to write on my part were too earnest by half and dripping with nostalgia.

Since college, though, I’ve changed, gradually. And over the past few years, I’ve returned to poetry with a delight that just wasn’t there in my younger days.

Let Me Count the Ways

I love the care with which poets must choose their words. There’s great satisfaction in finding a good word in the perfect setting. I enjoy the way skillful poets fit words together—to complement, enhance, or contrast individual meanings.

The sounds of poetry are as varied as the poets who conduct that orchestra. A good rhyme is wonderful, sure, but the pleasure of sound in poetry soars high above rhyme. I love to read poets who have a command of the language—they mix complementary sounds, they raise hints and echoes, they have studied how neighboring words and phrases can please or disturb a reader’s mind and mouth.

The rhythm of poetry is perhaps what I understood least in my younger days. If it wasn’t a well-known poetic form, we didn’t mention rhythm. But I’m now admiring the skill of poets who control my reading speed with word length and syllable distribution. Specific letters and sounds help regulate how quickly I digest a line or a stanza, and in this way a skilled poet can focus my attention on themes that require deeper meditation.

Books are so often better than movies because of the differences in images. What books describe and leave for the imagination, movies make explicit. Poetry often exceeds prose for the same reason. Poems are rich in imagery, but they evoke pictures and emotions that are far more pleasing than a description in prose. A skillful comparison or analogy—a basic currency in poetry—is deeply satisfying.

A Recommendation

I was delighted to learn of the work of Malcolm Guite last year. Guite is a Christian poet who is especially taken with the sonnet.

I used his Advent book of poetry to great advantage last December, and I plan to begin his Lenten book later this month. These books contain some of his original work, but they feature more prominently the work of other poets with short commentary. Guite’s love for language and poetry burst off the page, and I’ve learned much from his explanations.

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