Why We Need More Poetry in Our Lives

By Karen Kenyon

Poet Ishmael Von Heidrick-Barnes

“We are hungry for the secret news about life,” said former poet laureate, the late Stanley Kunitz. He was speaking of the news that poetry delivers.

Most Americans just don’t get this deep soulful daily news.

We don’t know the names of our great poets.

We don’t pay our great poets much (the majority of poetry anthologies pay in copies — most very accomplished poets teach at universities or other schools, in order to survive).  Poets’ paychecks are either nil or less than even an outfielder in a minor minor league. Even our Poet Laureates are only given a stipend of $35,000.  They are not household names.

Thousands don’t fill a stadium to hear a poet here in America — unless that poet is also a musician — say, Dylan or John Lennon. It’s a different story in many other countries.

The poets often speak, or spoke, for the people.

Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize winning poet of Chile, was much revered in his country of Chile.  He was known not only as a poet of love, but as a poet of the people, speaking for the oppressed, and against the oppressors, as in his poem, The United Fruit Company, which speaks out against our American “banana plantations.”  in 1945 Neruda  read to 100,000 people.  His country honored him by giving him  diplomatic positions.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko gained wide popularity with the Russian people. Thousands have shown up for his readings. His most famous poem, Babi Yar, denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev.

Vaclev Havel was the 10th and last president of Czechoslovakia, and first president of the Czech Republic. He is an accomplished poet and playwright. His work with human rights led to imprisonment for a time.  Havel’s motto was “truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” Havel is one of the leading intellectual and moral leaders in Eastern Europe.

Poetry is a special kind of language, and America doesn’t, for the most part, speak it. But, when an American of note does have a touch of the poet — Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, or the Kennedy’s — we do respond, and those leaders often touch hearts, and attain a mantle of greatness (for a time) because we’ve been lifted by language by some deep inner song and passion to contemplate connections, caring, righteous anger, and thoughts in a way that goes beyond words — or in the epitome of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called, “the best words in the best order.”

Poets are most often for peace, for kindness, beauty.  They acknowledge pain, don’t look away from suffering.  Little children love poetry. Its rhythm helps ease them into the world. Lovers’ emotions find expression in poetry.  The bereaved often let poetry in, because it can say what mostly cannot be said.

Maybe we have to be a much older country to appreciate poetry. Maybe we have to suffer more to appreciate poetry.

When Billy Collins was our poet laureate he compiled Poetry 180, just so teachers could read aloud one poem a day to their class, and poetry could be a part of young people’s lives.

All the great cultures have revered poets — the Greeks, the British, the French, the countries of the Far East.         In the Latin American cultures poetry is deeply intertwined with people’s lives.  But in America poetry still sits in the back of the bus. Maybe we should finally let poetry in the front door.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that as we are torn by conflict in the Middle East, the great Sufi-Mulsim 13th century poet, Rumi, is said to be the most popular poet in America. Perhaps his words of love, of kindness, of relation to others, is uniting us in some way after all.

Perhaps that is the “secret news of life.”

So, come for an evening of poetry at Upstart Crow Trading Co. in Seaport Village on Wednesday evening, August 15. Ishmael Von Heidrick-Barnes will deliver some of this secret news of life as he reads from his newly published book, Intimate Geography, Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, NJ, while you sip a latte or cappuccino, and later browse for books.

Heidrick-Barnes grew up in San Diego, and some poems reflect that experience — for example – In the Flight Path, about the PSA crash in North Park when he was a teenager, or his poem After the Witch Creek Fire.  But he’s traveled the outer world and inner world too – there’s Firenza, about leaving his suitcase in Florence, Italy, or the deeply personal Imposter.

His background is in religion (he studied for the priesthood at one point), and in medicine.  This rich background synthesizes as he strums his poetry notes.

Let a little poetry in your life!

San Diego county poet Trish Dugger (Poet Laureate of Encinitas) is also on the program, for a not-to-be-missed evening.

Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY)  and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.


  1. avatar says

    Poetry is a live and kicking — regardless of pay scale. Regular readings take place throughout the county, including in the boondocks of Fallbrook — and they are well-populated with young people, and other than young people. And, our current California Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, is local: .

  2. avatarAnna Daniels says

    I think Americans embrace poetry most fully in music lyrics and I’m thinking of everything and everyone from Leonard Cohen to the best of hip hop. I live by poetry, and reading a poem every morning http://poems.com/ is as essential to my waking soul as the attendant cup of strong rich coffee is to my waking body. Thank you for your elegant post Karen.

  3. avatarJason says

    Not a single female poet is mentioned in the body of this article. Ironic and pathetic.