The P Word

12 May

by Savannah J. Foley


I have a secret. One that makes my fellow writers either raise their eyebrows or heave a sigh of relief: I like poetry.

Don’t leave! A lot of writers I know neither like nor respect poetry, but that’s like disliking playwrights, songwriters, short story writers, or the inventors of slogans. All of these people are writers, just the same as novelists, and today I’m going to show you why poetry kicks ass.

You don’t have to like it when I’m done, but you will respect it.

Poetry is the half-way point between prose and music. Even non-rhyming poetry is lyrical; music can be found behind the natural pattern of the words involved. Poetry is also a paradox: it transmits ideas without the plod of prose, and loops through our minds without the steady beat of music. A good poem will stick with you because it exposes you to an emotional message relevant to you personally, or manages to say something that clicks true in your mind, that makes you think ‘yes, this is it exactly.’ To quote John Updike, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.”

Contrary to popular belief, poetry isn’t here to make you feel stupid, to bore you, or to make you analyze the impact of social issues from three hundred years ago. Good poetry is relevant to your daily life, and will make you feel connected to the author/topic.

I love how poetry can personify concepts and then confront them. I also love its brevity; you can approach any topic and make a statement without having to turn it into an 80,000 word novel.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with Introduction to Poetry, by one of my favorite poets, former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy’s poem explains exactly what you should NOT do with poetry: brutally dissect it for meaning. Poems are for enjoying, not for analyzing. Let’s look at a few more examples to please your mind:

The following is an excerpt from Governors on Sominex by David Berman, and shows you how poetry can give you pleasure merely by introducing you into a concept or idea you hadn’t thought of before:

Governors on Sominex

It had been four days of no weather
as if nature had conceded its genius to the indoors.

They’d closed down the Bureau of Sad Endings
and my wife sat on the couch and read the paper out loud.

The evening edition carried the magic death of a child
backlit by a construction site sunrise on its front page.

I remember reading that for the first time and considering the strange idea of reading a newspaper article about a child’s death, while the thin paper showed a sunrise from the other side.

Poems can also tickle your brain. Consider the following excerpt from ‘Player Piano’ by John Updike:

Player Piano

My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.

Poetry can also introduce a pleasing concept. I like how the following poem gets in, makes its point, then gets out:


by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Here are some other bits that have stuck with me over the years, that ‘dangle from me like a locket’ (Marginalia by Billy Collins):

‘His death now had an entrance and an exit.’

(The Wires of the Night by Billy Collins)


‘Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.’

(The Night House by Billy Collins)


‘Rooms, which were people.’

(Mary Cross)


‘Atoms or systems into ruin hurled
and now a bubble burst,
and now a world.’

(Essay on Man by Alexander Pope)



(Spring by e.e. cummings)


And finally, what kind of poetry ambassador would I be if I didn’t share my own work?

The Urban Sprawl of Love

Where do you go when you wander away?
I get tangled in love like affairs of the young:
a habit of no escape,
our lives like hardening cement on a changing floor,
and we all lose some skin when we finally leave.

How can I believe what you don’t want to say?
I’m a sinner with palms that cup the tiny darkness,
with schizophrenic eyes hoping for shadows
playing quietly in the corner:
A long-term plan and some pretty words
are the only things I have going for me.

This is the urban sprawl of love.

Our heroes slouch towards Bethlehem,
while grace comes with a side of fries,
and no clean sanctuaries are budding up
against the corners of strip malls,
like climbing roses blooming in city grit;
I am not the sharp, broken poetry of the Big Bad,
or the lovely arias of a luscious country town,
but a sell-out mediocrity with retention ponds
and new generations that vow to get out.

I would escape, but the sprawl is in me;
the languid spread of small, cheap wonders:
a plastic place where no one lives.
I could never hope to make you stay-
this is all I’ll ever have to give.


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.


21 Responses to “The P Word”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh May 12, 2010 at 1:08 AM #

    Awesome post Savannah! I think it’s great that you’ve brought “the P word” out into the open! 🙂

  2. Angela May 12, 2010 at 2:46 AM #

    For the past few months, I`ve been bummed out that my high school never taught us poetry. All they concentrated on was writing essays and passing college entrance exams :/

    I`m trying to learn more about poetry. I want to be able to write my own someday.

    Thanks for the article.

    • svonnah May 12, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

      I think Kat Zhang says it best down below… “I can write good prose when uninspired, but I can’t say the same for good poetry. It’s like trying to squeeze water from a dry rag.”

      Most of my poetry is autobiographical, and I can’t write anything worth a damn if I’m not feeling particularly emotional. I hope you will not be cursed with the same affliction 😉

    • Kayleigh May 12, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      “I`m trying to learn more about poetry. I want to be able to write my own someday.”

      May I just say that I knew nothing about poetry when I started writing poems. Please don’t wait until you know more about it, just write. It doesn’t have to rhyme. You can make it whatever you want it to be. I used to force my poems to rhyme and they were awful (also I was younger). Now I let them be what they want to be: free-form, usually centered on the page, either really short or really long, 2 stanzas or 8. I think the only thing poetry needs is emotion.

      Savannah: Great article! I’m one of the writers who likes poetry, as you can tell by what I wrote above. Mostly I write novels though, but once a month I’ll write a poem.

      Beautiful writing in your poem, by the way.

      And I think all writers should try their hand at poetry. Just to see what it’s like. And if you’re the kind who has to write everyday, a poem can be a remedy to writer’s block. That way you’re still writing. (I think this paragraph doesn’t make much sense, but do you get what I mean?)


      • svonnah May 12, 2010 at 10:05 AM #

        Thanks for the input, Kayleigh! I totally forgot to say that… don’t wait until you ‘know’ poetry to write some! Your poetry belongs to you, and can be whatever you choose to make of it.

        • Angela May 12, 2010 at 4:25 PM #

          Thanks for the advice. I`ll have that in mind.

          Writing is much easier when you`re feeling emotional. I encounter less problems when I write about a personal experience than, say, writing about something technical and boring =D lol

          I`m a bit scared about writing down my feelings though. After a traumatizing diary experience, I`ve always been careful about what I put down on paper.

  3. Glaiza May 12, 2010 at 6:13 AM #

    I love poetry, and if I do write it’s free-verse all the way but i do like how others can write within a structure/rythmn, i love haiku too – the simple, doubled edged way it moves.

    • svonnah May 12, 2010 at 9:31 AM #

      I adore free verse! Structured poetry weirds me out, but perhaps I’m too impatient to struggle with it to make it work.

  4. Kat Zhang May 12, 2010 at 7:51 AM #

    To me, poetry is like a self-contained moment of life–a nugget of emotion. If I find myself overwhelmed by anything–happiness, sadness, anger, confusion–I let it pour out in a poem, and that helps seal it away.

    I can write good prose when uninspired, but I can’t say the same for good poetry. It’s like trying to squeeze water from a dry rag.

    I’m not a big fan of really obtuse poetry either–especially when you feel like the author is just being obtuse for obtuse’s sake. Poetry is not meant to be a locked box, to which only the “intellectual” possess the key.

    Okay, so apparently I need my own rant about poetry, lol. I enjoyed all the work you shared here, Savannah! Have you tried John Donne? Love poems, all, but man, if someone gave me one of those… 😛

  5. Aurora Blackguard May 12, 2010 at 9:24 AM #

    Thanks for owning up 🙂 Makes me feel so much better

    Have you watched Bright Star? It’s an autobiography of poet John Keat’s life and there was one one song on the soundtrack called Negative Capability. While it was mostly spoken words, there was this one part where the actor was saying

    “A poem needs understanding through the senses.The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake — to luxuriate in the sensation of the water. You do not WORK the lake out – it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”

    I thought this was absolute genius. Check out John Keats as a favour to me, yeah? And Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII. 🙂

  6. Gabriela da Silva May 12, 2010 at 10:56 AM #

    Poetry is such a difficult theme for me. When I was younger, I thought you were supposed to “understand” it, which made me hate it – as I grew, and specially in college, I came to understand that it’s meant to be enjoyed, but still was difficult for me.

    But I’ve come to enjoy poetry, specially the most sonorous one. Have you ever heard or read about Gerard Manley Hopkins? His poems are rather obscure and always talk about God. But they sound beautiful! Just listen to the sounds here!

    “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, in it’s riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy!”

    That’s a small fragment of “The Windhover,” one of my favorites.

    I also think that poetry and prose aren’t mutually exclusive. Poetry gives you the ability to write exactly what you want to write – there is no space in poetry for “fodder”, all must be very punctual. Poetry also teaches you to play with sounds. Alliteration is difficult to use in prose, and sometimes turns cacophonous, but when it’s used correctly it beautifies your narration, and makes it more artsy (for what that’s worth).

    I’m quite bad at writing poetry, but I try. I mostly go for smaller pieces, so I really respect that you can write long poems like that – it was lovely, by the way.
    I specially like the last stanza, “the languid spread of small, cheap wonders” has something I really like.

    …perhaps it’s the alliteration 😛

  7. Vanessa May 12, 2010 at 3:29 PM #

    Sav, this was such a great article!!!

    I actually happen to like poetry! I’m not the biggest fan, but I certainly enjoy it! I used to write poetry along with my pieces of artwork back in the day!

    LOVED your poem too!! 😀

  8. Judy May 12, 2010 at 4:16 PM #

    I spent a few years writing poetry and “taking a break” from writing prose 😀 I can definitely feel the poetry-love! Thanks for this post as a reminder for me to revisit some of my favorite poems and some of my old poems as well. My favorite poets are Rilke, e.e. cummings, Octavio Paz, Frank O’Hara and Pablo Neruda…or I guess that’s just to start!

    I’m not sure why poetry has such a bad reputation in the writing world. Poets exist in their little bubble of isolation, and it’s nice to see some criss cross between different types of writing.

    • B May 12, 2010 at 10:25 PM #

      Poets hardly have a bad reputation in the writing world. You mentioned Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda (both Nobel Laureates), the Beat Generation is still fairly popular, and that’s mostly poetry. In fact, historically, poetry was for a very very long time considered to be the only true form of Literature, and it was writer’s of prose that were looked down upon. The issue today isn’t that poetry has a bad reputation, simply put it doesn’t sell. Publishers generally don’t go out of their way to publish poetry collections unless it’s from a well established poet.

      • Judy May 13, 2010 at 4:45 PM #

        In terms of “bad reputation”, there are two points I’m addressing. First, like Savannah mentioned in her post about the eyebrow raise or the look of “why are you doing that?” when talking to people about reading and writing poetry. A lot of people associate poetry with the angst filled scribblings of teenagers or perhaps song lyrics. There are still people who associate poetry with rhyming verse like sonnets. I would also say that the profession of “writer” is a lot more respectable than the profession of “poet”, or not even speaking in professions, but simply in labels.

        I’m also talking about the split between the recognition for poets compared to the recognition for, let’s say, fiction writers. Like you pointed out, only poets who are recognized are published, and it is difficult to publish anything originally because of the competition in literary journals and how poetry can be in so many different forms. Generally a novel would follow a specific structure, does it have a beginning, middle and an end? Is there a good voice? Is there a hook that is interesting? You can point out all of these components. Can you do that with poetry? Not necessarily.

        There’s a ton of great poetry being produced out there, but it’s not marketable. So would I say that poets/poetry have a bad reputation compared to other forms of writing? Absolutely, if you’re talking about hard dollars earned or even how difficult it is to become a respected poet compared to a writer. Would I look down on poetry or hesitate in calling myself a poet because of this? Of course not.

        • B May 13, 2010 at 11:15 PM #

          Hmm…the problem here becomes who exactly is giving the recognition? The average person…sure, novelists are more well known. But to put it in broader terms the average person doesn’t even read novels. As far as current book sales/readership, nonfiction blows fiction out of the water. Autobiography is probably the most widely read genre.

          Within the literary world I think that wouldn’t be the case. The average person MAY have heard of Neruda and Paz, but ask anyone if they’ve heard of Derrick Walcott, Ezra Pound, Kamau Brathwaite, Duo Duo and they’d probably look at you like you’re speaking another language, yet all of these people are world famous poets and widely regarded as among the best writers to come out of their respective lands and in their respective languages. And that is of course merely a tip of the iceberg.

          I guess my big issue is exactly who and where that recognition is coming from. MFA programs attract large numbers of poets. Many countries have appointed Poet Laureates(for which there is no novel equivalent). Poetry is HUGE in the literary world, but in the regular world as far as paychecks and big publishing contracts they pale in comparison to a novelist. It’s really a matter of perspective when you get down to it.

          I know it sounds like I’m splitting wigs but I think these are things that do need to be addressed when dealing with such a big topic as poetry which has a far longer history and tradition in literature than does the novel. Which brings in another thing to look at, the East vs. West dynamic in regards to poetry and the novel…but I think I’ve said enough.

          Obviously I’m not picking on you, or anyone, it’s clear everyone here likes poetry, it just seemed to me that this post came off so general about this looking down on of poetry when in my own reading of literature/history/criticism that hardly seems true.

          • svonnah May 13, 2010 at 11:18 PM #

            You’re absolutely right about the great history of poetry, but the fact is that today I fear it’s not as widely respected as it once was. With this post I was attempting to show people why they shouldn’t automatically discount poetry as a valuable art form. Granted, I could have been a little more expansive, but I didn’t want to seem like a fanatic.

          • Judy May 14, 2010 at 12:01 AM #

            I feel like I should title this “in defense of poetry”…

            I do understand and actually share some of your frustration with the perception of poetry. That’s why I mentioned that poets sometimes isolate themselves in their poetry groups and the exclusivity of literary journals, but they do not promote themselves to the general public as often as they should. Which further contributes to the impression of true poets as isolationist/elitist eccentrics (seriously, how many poets can say they are able to make a career just out of writing poems. We’re not all walking around with the Guggenheim Fellowship). That’s why I stated that it would be amazing to have poets cross forms and establish a following with the novel as well as finding an audience for their poetry.

            Some of my university education was spent in poetry classes and seminars (didn’t set foot in a fiction class), so I think you’re preaching to the choir here. Derek Walcott is actually a frequent visiting speaker at my university 😀 I had a chance to attend a seminar with him but unfortunately could not arrange my schedule to fit it in.

            But why is it that when I say that I write poetry, people often cringe or make a weird face? However, it is a compliment to say I write “poetically” in my prose. Why is one more acceptable than the other? Poets occupy a strange place in the world, but I think a very essential place. Poets are doing wonderful things with the meaning of words, shaking their usage and their contexts, rearranging their sounds and perceptions. Such as Christian Bok. He is a poet operating in the novel “box”, but changing or adding to the rules. But maybe it is this strangeness and the stretching of borders that makes them inaccessible to the general public, and that’s when I question whether it’s even important for the average reader to “get” poetry in the first place, which contradicts my previous thoughts but we’re having a dialogue here so I suppose it’s ok. /end rant

            • B May 14, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

              You are absolutely right, but I don’t think it is the poet that is at fault here, rather the editors. Editors wield ALL the power in the literary world (okay maybe less so now that self-publishing/web-publishing is getting bigger, but those don’t reach as wide an audience as major publishing houses) and everyone here it appears has experience with querying agents, publishers and so forth. Poetry COULD be as big as it deserves/and used to be. I understand the daunting job editors have, sifting through thousands of manuscripts, but because of the business approach so many publishing houses are scared to take risks. There was the post earlier that mentioned all the authors who had so much trouble getting published and how many times they were turned down, only to be world famous today. Publishers THINK people won’t read them, but that’s because there is no exposure. I fully believe that if poetry was more widely published and visible this attitude that you’re speaking of would start to disappear. Every class I’ve taken with poetry has been met positively overall. You can’t please everyone but people do appreciate it, how can you not with as you said the wild wordplay going on and all the amazing work being written.

              That is very cool that Walcott freq visits your school…I would love to hear him speak sometime.

  9. Myra May 20, 2010 at 7:45 PM #

    The jeweler’s revenge:
    a bracelet that fits so perfectly
    I can’t fasten it by myself.
    It’s just jewelry, it doesn’t mean anything
    but every time I wear it, I remember:
    the golden suns of Greece
    the jeweler’s eyes like greedy diamonds, his hair a wine-dark sea
    and how I laughed, but didn’t say anything.
    That was when I didn’t know there was something to be said,
    but I’m saying it now:

    America, I still love you
    and I won’t leave you.
    Call me a fool, but I still believe you can change.
    I’m not asking you to commit, I just really think
    you should stop chasing those rich old men
    maybe seek an alternative lifestyle.

    — Simone Beaubien

    I know this is super late, but I found this bit of poetry and remembered how I don’t usually like poetry and then this article and yeah.


  1. The Getaway » Blog Archive » In “Defense” of Poetry - May 14, 2010

    […] on a bit of a rant here at Let the Words Flow within this post on poetry. The poor person who replied to my response had to read my thoughts on whether poetry should become […]

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