Can poetry change the world?

I believe in the power of poetry to change the world.

Whether we read it, hear it, speak it, practice it, or experience it—poetry and its process is paramount to making meaningful change in the world.

Because to change the world does not take large, heroic, complicated, and costly achievements—but small, thoughtful, independent, and nimble understanding of our everyday decisions.

Simply: change is not about new technologies and crowdfunded ideas to solve our biggest problems, but the ability to imagine the entirety of the story before our individual and collective actions cause them.

Imagine having the lightning insight of an entire species’ future in the moment it takes to buy a plastic bottle of water.

That is poetry.

Imagine being able to see a stranger’s entire life unfold in front of you in the moment it takes to shake someone’s hand.

That is poetry.

Imagine seeing the sparks of connection between every person you’ve ever met in the moment it takes to check emails on your phone.

That is poetry.

Imagine having dinner, drinks, and a long walk full of conversation in the moment it takes to order your morning coffee.

That is poetry.

Imagine being whisked across the ocean to mourn with the woman who has been separated from her husband in the moment it takes to buy the tickets for your next vacation.

That is poetry.

Imagine seeing a mother’s tears as she realizes she can stay at home with her newborn baby and make money doing what she loves in the moment it takes to cast your vote on the ballot.

That is poetry.

Poetry is not about simplifying, but magnifying the complexities of the human condition within a focused moment.

With poetry, every thought is a wonder. Every moment is a lifetime.

With poetry, when we enter our day, we are more aware of every action, but more importantly, we can see the implications and the connectedness of the smallest decisions we make before we follow through with them.

Because poetry gives us the insight, imagination, and interpretation in the small spaces of our day to see the substance in our breaks, the impact of our words, the preciseness of our decisions, and the possibility in being able to throw it all away if it’s not working.


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How to read poetry when life gets in the way

You will hate poetry if you don’t know how to read it.

Or, at least, you will like fewer poems than you would if you knew how to read it.

But you don’t have to love all poetry. I don’t.

The key to poetry—reading or writing it—is to never force it. As I stated in my poetry class the other day:

You cannot write with the answer.

Similarly, in reading it:

You cannot read thinking you have all the answers.

Be open.

The best way for me to help you read poetry is to tell you how I read poetry, with some tips I’ve picked up along the way plus standard protocol for poets in the biz.

1. Just read. Pick up whatever collection you might have or be interested in and read. There is no pressure at this stage to read anything that doesn’t draw you in. Don’t force it. Just read until something gives you pause. It’s okay if you read several before something stops you. You could even read titles and or first lines if you wish, but poems are short, reading all the way through each poem won’t harm you, and it will give you more than if you expect every poem to blow your mind. If you force it, you won’t receive what the poet is trying to offer you.

2. When something gives you pause, stop. Slow down. This is the point to start paying attention. It could be anything from

• how the poet grouped certain words
• a description that makes you stop and want to take it in
• any line or stanza that brings to light some new truth that you’ve
never thought of before

Just read the part a few times. If something more strikes you as you read it over, great, but if not, it’s okay to move on. This is just an opportunity to slow down your hectic world and get more out of something that may seem so small and simple to the harried eye.

3. After you’ve taken a short pause, continue reading the poem all the way through. At the end, stop another moment, and just let it seep in. In that short amount of time, from the opening to the close of the poem, what did you get out of it? Did you get anything? Do you think that whatever lay between the title and the last line was complete?

• How did it make you feel?
• What are some thoughts it made you think?
• Was there a theme/impression it left?
• If you could summarize the poem in a few words, what would they be?
(You could even take a few words or lines from the poem that you think
define the poem.)

4. Now read back through the poem after you’ve asked yourself these questions and settled on a theme. As you go back through, see if everything you just read fits the theme you’ve given it. Make note of places where maybe it doesn’t, and highlight anything that you believe reaffirms your theme, or speaks to your theme strongly.

5. At the end of your second or subsequent read-throughs, ask yourself: Is my theme consistent with the poem? If there are lines that do not match up with your impression, ask yourself two things:

• Could there be a meaning, metaphor, or other poetic device the poet is using that I might be misreading?
• Could there be another theme, different from mine, that I am overlooking because I am getting in the way of the poetry?

This second question is the key to art: empathy. Putting yourself in the place of the poet. Removing your beliefs, opinions, perceptions so you can see the world from another point of view. Are there, even, any experiences and truths from your own life that maybe you’ve forgotten or buried that make you think this poem is about something other than what the poet may have intended?

At this point, you can read the poem as often as you like until you feel you have discovered the secret to the universe the poet has tried to reveal.

But again, don’t force it. If you’ve tried, and you keep getting the same thing from the poem, it may not speak to you. Take from it what you can—whatever it was that stopped you during the very first read-through.

If it’s beautiful language, keep those lines with you to inspire your own writing.

If it was a description, use it to remember the beauty you didn’t see in the world before.

If there was a new truth revealed, try to perceive your everyday a little differently than you did before you found those lines.

And if nothing else, be grateful for this piece of honesty, vulnerability, and beautiful writing that someone was brave enough to put out into the world.

If you got anything out of this post, it means I might be one step closer to my mission: to make poetry accessible again.

One way I’m trying to make poetry accessible is by going directly to “the people” and shunning the traditional publishing route. I am doing that in two ways.

  1. Every month, I put on a “poetry challenge” in which I collect 3 words each submitted by people just like you and make a poem out of them. You can learn more here:
  2. I occasionally do these challenges free and to the public, but for now, they reside on Patreon and are exclusively for my patrons. If you’d like to join me on one of these challenges or support my work so I can bring poetry to a broader audience, please consider becoming a patron.

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