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Writers Define Poetry's Role In Today's Society

Brenda Clarke | via Flickr

Poetry is misunderstood.

“Poetry does have this reputation among the general public as being this highbrow kind of communication that’s only suitable for academic people and people of the intellectual elite, and is not relevant or needed for anybody else,” Missouri poet laureate Bill Trowbridge told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday.

“I think that there’s a mistake and assumption about poetry and since it uses language, and we all have language, that it’ll be very easy to read,” said Mary Jo Bang, an English and creative writing professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “When it’s not easy to read, there’s a frustration and a confusion and so people turn away from it. I think that this is due to a misunderstanding about what poetry is, which has to do with the way language is used. It’s not the way that it’s used on the front page of the newspaper or even in a short story.”

There also are different kinds of poetry. As an example, Bang pointed to rap.

“I think rap music is poetry,” she said. “Rap is very direct in what it says, and there is a kind of poetry that’s very direct in what it says.”

But other types of poetry are less direct, which may cause confusion for readers.

“There might be a literal meaning to something, but also underneath a secondary meaning — a figurative meaning. It’s the ambiguity: What does it really mean? Does it mean what it says? Or does it mean what it suggests?" she said. "Poetry is very economical; it’s very compress. So we like that and we need that double meaning.”

And that, both writers said, is what makes poetry powerful.

“It’s a powerful means of expression. I think that’s one thing that separates poetry from prose,” Trowbridge said. “It’s a way of concentrating power in language. Certainly expressing something in poetry, if it’s done well, is going to move people.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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