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When poetry is a luxury

I like poetry. Maybe it’s because of the abundance of Dr. Seuss books that were placed on my shelf as a kid, or maybe because of the painfully awkward and yet somehow still magical reading of “Romeo and Juliet” put on by my seventh grade class. Maybe it’s because poetry is a concentrated and powerful way of using words to capture the fleeting moments of life (not to wax too poetic, of course).

Regardless, for a long time now, reading and writing poetry has been a meaningful part of my life. I get Poem-a-Day emails that deliver a new verse in my inbox every morning. I follow poets on Instagram. This quarter, I even got to see two spoken word poets, Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay, perform live in San Francisco.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed poetry taking a backseat to other interests in my life. I’ve missed a number of poetry workshops this quarter, and my writing notebook feels a little more empty than it has in the past. I could chalk it up to a busy winter schedule. It could be a desire to pursue other artistic interests like photography or prose writing. I could even blame it on the internship applications I’ve had to write.

But then I wonder why poetry has to be the thing I sacrifice. In some ways it’s just practical. Writing poetry on the side won’t help me fulfill the requirements of my classes. Though I can add it to my portfolio, it probably won’t help me get a job. Sometimes, if I’m trying to write poetry when I’m feeling tired or unimaginative, it doesn’t even help me lift my spirits. It’s just a luxury in my life that I can’t always afford to give my time.

A couple of weeks ago, for one of my English classes, we read an essay called “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” written by famed African-American poet and activist Audre Lorde. In only a couple of pages, Lorde outlines one of the most compelling arguments for poetry that I have ever read. This is poetry not just as a hobby, but as a “vital necessity of our existence.”

Lorde argues that poetry is a way of processing our emotions, because “feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries…for the most radical and daring of ideas.” As a black woman, she urges other women of color to explore and validate their feelings in a world that often discounts them. In a world that frequently prioritizes rationality over emotion, she encourages the use of poetry to upend the status quo.

Lorde describes poems as a way of delving into the “hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.” For her, poetry “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” (I could keep quoting, but the whole poignant essay is worth the read, if you have a few minutes to spare.)

Bringing Lorde’s work into my life as a present-day Stanford student caused me to look at my missed poetry workshops in a new way. We culturally tend to value practicality, even though time and time again I have found that personal projects that don’t necessarily align with my courses or career aspirations still bring great value to my life. Furthermore, beyond the value of personal enrichment, pursuing the arts can prepare us for a creative life in any career we pursue. And that creativity can manifest itself in a compassion for others or a greater social awareness, which Lorde argues is the most pressing purpose of art. At Stanford, though, we can nevertheless tend to treat personal interests as a luxury, and a luxury alone.

This, of course, does not even broach the actual barriers to the arts — not just mental barriers or limitations of time, but the course and supply fees that make art practice feel even more like a luxury at times. Other Opinions writers have previously discussed the economic burden of textbook costs and the added stress of pursuing a humanities field not just due to studio fees but also due to the concern over future employability. These are all very real concerns, and they can add to the weight of feeling like poetry is a luxury, despite its potential power to help us make sense of the world and promote positive change.

In your life, poetry might be something entirely different — sudoku or painting, crossword puzzles or running a student organization. All of these things take devoted effort and time and resources. Sometimes they feel completely outside of the things we need to do to get through the day — to make money or be “successful,” whatever that might mean. But I think it is urgent that we foster the “luxuries” in our lives. Not only do they give us a deeper sense of meaning, but they provide the opportunity to make our mental space richer and prepare us to engage with others in a creative and compassionate way. That’s a payoff that is worth the price.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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