I’ve been thinking a bit lately about why one writes poetry. It’s a question that’s been with me for a decade or so now, peaking during the period beginning maybe 8 years ago and ending about 6 years ago. This was the period during which my formal studies of poetry were at their most vigorous and during which I struggled a good bit with why one writes poems the way one does, especially today. In centuries and decades past, poets used formal conventions such as rhyme and meter as a canvas for their ideas, and so there was a pretty clear distinction between poetry and prose. In the 20th century, poems using no discernible convention became more and more common, and poems often seemed rather like prose chopped into lines. This being the case, why would anyone bother to write poems instead of just writing the prose without bothering to add carriage returns every few lines? Naturally, some poets whose work seemed on the surface to be arbitrarily broken into lines had some useful or at least loosely measurable metric by which they chose to mete out their lines. It’s nevertheless tempting to wonder why they even bother to do so, if it’s so difficult to divine what’s behind their line breaks.
Perhaps it’s simply the craft of it that matters to these poets. By writing lines that feel right to themselves, whether or not there’s a clear rubric used for breaking lines, and by taking great pains to get to that final draft with all its editorial bloodshed, the poet has labored to create an artifact he or she feels pleased to have created. This raises the question of whether some sorts of poetry are (or should be) a private or a public art form. I could labor for weeks on a piece of nonsense doggerel that I’m proud of because the process of making it took much craft, but if it’s not something that others could appreciate in some way without my having to explain that I fasted for six weeks while painstakingly etching my drafts into yak skin using my own blood a pinpoint at a time, maybe it’s something I ought to be privately proud of, and perhaps I should consider becoming a performance artist rather than a poet.
In cases in which the poem itself is fairly accessible if not obviously ruled by some formal convention, why, again, should one bother to write it in verse? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’ve written my own healthy share of formal verse but have also written much free verse. And while the lineation and the diction tend to make sense to me on some level and while the primary action or description of my poems can usually be extracted pretty easily, I do wonder why I’m nevertheless compelled to write in anything but prose.
One of the only remotely satisfying answers I’ve come up with to date is that prose often feels as if it should be longer. Writing in prose something as compressed as what many write in poetry seems rather like driving your car a few yards down the driveway to get the mail. Writing poetry gives us permission to compress what we’re writing. Labeling something as poetry — whether it be by whacking prose into lines or writing a book of short prose and calling the pieces prose poems — is like announcing that the driveway is short enough that cranking up the car for a drive to the mailbox would be absurd. Which is not to say that poetry is insignificant or useless, for the end result, whether your mailbox is at the end of a 15-yard driveway or of a two-mile driveway, is that you wind up retrieving the mail. The intellectual payload of poetry and prose, in other words, may be very similar in spite of the different mindsets they may require. There is much of great emotional and intellectual value that can be said best — or at least very well — in a short burst of highly-charged language.