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Why Write Poetry?

Well, THAT'S a real useful topic, isn't it? I mean, if you're here in this workshop you already have some reason for writing poetry, that works for you. And if you don't have any reason for writing poetry, you aren't here. So who am I talking to?

On the other hand... You could have just dropped by the web page, trying to figure out why all those people spend all that time doing all that scribbling. One of them might be someone you care a lot about, and you'd really like to know.

Or you could have started writing poetry to make extra points in school, or to flatter someone you wanted to impress, or to work out your feelings about a death in the family -- and now you're wondering if there are other reasons for doing this stuff.

I'm going to describe several reasons that I, friends of mine, and the people in books have all had for writing poetry. Then I'll give you a chance to explore your own reasons. Then we'll have a chance to share ideas across the whole workshop.

In the end, your reasons for writing poetry will be your own, as they have always been. But you may understand them more clearly, have some new ideas on how to pursue them, and begin to explore further uses of poetry, for yourself. You will also have a better understanding of why on earth other people write THAT stuff and call it poetry.


The music of language, intricate rhyme schemes, elegant phrases, vivid images - the art of poetry is enough to inspire many to write it.

There is no earthly reason for the existence of Shelley's poem, "To a Skylark" - except that it sounds beautiful. Edgar Allen Poe could have had no reason to write "The Bells" except delight in the music of it -- unless he was cackling with glee over the prospect of generations of readers being driven up the walls by his repetitions.

Which leads into the second category ...

To Have an Effect

Many writers are frustrated hams. We want to "make 'em laugh; make 'em cry." We want to reach out and touch someone -- arouse them to sensuous passion, make them shudder in dread of creepy things in the shadows, enrage them, soothe them. Just to prove we can.

Which leads into ...

Showing Off

Intricate rhyme schemes; alternating trochaic hexameter and anapestic octometer; vivid flights of imagery that leave stunned readers asking, "Huh? Whazzat?" There are many ways to indulge the urge to Show Off, in poetry.


"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." From satirizing your enemies to promoting your heroes, teaching ethics or arithmetic on Sesame Street or selling cat food, millennia of persuaders have found that people listen to and remember words couched in rhythm and rhyme, and phrased entertainingly.


This is closely related to the urge to have an effect, or to persuade, but not identical.

I have been writing poetry for a lot longer than I have been writing prose. Often, in conversation, I will want to express an idea - and I know just the poem for it. If it is inappropriate to interject a poem right then, and I have to translate the poem to prose, I feel frustrated. I am convinced the poem said it better.

I have been accused of Showing Off, by reciting too many of my own poems in conversation, but it is hard for me to understand the accusation. To me, the purpose of poetry is communication - I'm just trying to communicate.

This illustrates one of the benefits to understanding a wider variety of the purposes of poetry. People can become confused by another's poetry, if it does not seem to pursue what THEY consider poetry's purpose. A person who believes that the whole reason for writing poetry is to create esthetic works of art, is baffled by the existence of Therapy Poetry. A person who believes that the whole purpose of poetry is to explore and express your innermost feelings, tries to read much more into flight-of-imagery poetry, or parodies, than was ever intended.

This can be frustrating. Leading into ...


The Rant poem. The Bardic Satire. Therapy Poetry. Elegies.

Large numbers of poems are written to vent emotion: anger, anxiety, grief, longing, homesickness, love, lust. Exasperation with red tape. Annoyance at bus drivers. The overwhelming absurdity of a restaurant sign you just saw. All kinds of feelings that you have to express or bust.


This is related to Venting, but more extended.

It may not be true that all humans always think in words, but certainly much of what passes for thinking in most of us is in words. And many of us find it easier to clarify our thoughts and our feelings if we talk them over with someone -- or just ourselves.

Free-associating on paper -- which poetry is an excellent way to do -- we can often startle ourselves with insights.

Pouring out an emotion can help us not only relieve it, but eventually understand it better; come to resolution of grief, or rage, and move on.

And sometimes just having something out in print at last can be a relief:

whiskers in the dark
are not a sensual delight
to a five-year-old

It Was There

Sometimes a poem just comes to you. Then you have to write it down. Then you have to share it. This is part of what being a poet is. (This is also part of what being highly annoyed by poets is.)

Exercise: Why Write

Step 1:

Now, at last, it is your turn. Write down the reasons you have for writing poetry. They can include all of the above and then some, or be just one, but list all the reasons that occur to you for why YOU write.

Step 2:

Bring out a bunch of your poems. For each one, ask yourself, "Why did I write this?" Write down the first thing that occurs to you. Do this for at least 10 different poems.

Step 3:

Compare the two lists. Are there more reasons in the first list, or the second? Do they match? Do they seem to agree with each other, or contradict?

Step 4:

Pick one of the reasons in the list I gave that does NOT appeal to you. Describe why you don't want to write poetry for this reason. Then describe what you might get out of trying to write poetry for this purpose.

Guidelines for critique

This exercise does not need to be posted; you may use it for your own benefit.

If anyone does post a sub to this exercise, it is not to be critiqued along the lines of "that is a valid purpose" or "that is not". A poet's purposes are her own. But listing additional possible purposes is a good contribution to the discussion. So are suggestions, if someone's intended purposes are frustrated in the poetry she is currently writing, of ways to further the original purposes.

Write On!