Why Poetry Matters Now More Than Ever

Today’s poem, below, is from an otherwise ordinary day in Hattie’s life that hints at her ability to attend to and appreciate details, the diversity of farm activities, and, most poignant to me, her regret at having talked too much. (Just a reminder that in April I am posting a poem a day as part of National Poetry Writing Month; in May, I’ll resume a posting schedule of three times a week.)

In 1951 Hattie turned 70 years old. What her words on the page do not say is that a goiter operation in 1936 damaged her vocal cords so that for the rest of her life, she spoke only in a hoarse whisper. Was she sorry because of physical discomfort, because it wasted time, because she felt she talked about things better left unsaid, or for some other reason? I will never know, but these kinds of questions are what keep me reading her entries.

The Language of Poetry

I have also been asking myself why poetry seems to be such a good fit for sharing Hattie’s diaries. Part of the reason is that she wrote in a simple, rhythmic style with what poet Kathleen Norris calls “Plains speech”:

“Plains speech, while nearly devoid of ‘-isms’ and ‘-ologies,’ tends toward the concrete and the personal: weather, the land, other people. Good language for a poet to hear.” (Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geographyp. 18)

Plains speech—clear, tangible, sensory—came naturally to Hattie, who never stopped attending closely to the world around her. She knew how to look with care at everyday life to find what was valuable and bright and beautiful. As Norris writes, “The deprivations of the Plains … tend to turn small gifts into treasures” (p. 20).

Note: This post was slightly revised on April 23, 2014 from its original version, with part of it moved to Shakespeare for Everyone.

See Also

April 13, 1951: We talked too much

Bright just beautiful
Nineteen at dawn
Got warm in a hurry
Men castrated calves
Trimmed table linoleum
(steel edge wouldn’t fit)
And ate ice cream
Stanley has new
Tan Chevrolet sedan
Frankie brought milk
And we talked too much
I am sorry

1951 Chevrolet Styleline 4-Door Sedan, photo by Alden Jewell (CC BY 2.0)
1951 Chevrolet Styleline 4-Door Sedan, photo by Alden Jewell (CC BY 2.0)
April 13, 1951
April 13, 1951

3 thoughts on “Why Poetry Matters Now More Than Ever

  1. Your post reminds me of how in ancient Greek mythology, poets got to live in Elysium, the best neighborhood of Hades, alongside warrior heroes and great philosophers like Socrates. You can tell a lot about a culture’s greatness by the esteem accorded to poets and poetry.

    • That’s a good point. It makes me think of something my husband and I went to last week–a Shakespeare “Sonnet Slam” at Marquette, where folks from all parts of the city (including the mayor and county executive) took turns reading snippets of Shakespeare’s poetry, not for news cameras but just for the sheer joy of it.

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