The Heart of Poetry = name of document.  rev. 10 July 2004, 14 June 2004


“The Heart of Poetry”*


Howard F. Stein


* Keynote Presentation, Poetry Society of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, 10 July 2004



          What lies at the heart of poetry?   This can be answered in two ways. The first is descriptive: by describing poems and identifying some common denominator to them.  The second is prescriptive: by saying something about ideals to which we aspire – and as poets should aspire.  This latter will be my path.    I shall quote considerably from three wise poets.


In a review essay, W.S. Di Piero writes that “one of poetry’s traditional powers is to console and heal. …The strongest of this kind absorbs into song tragic knowledge … such that the hope of healing is veined with the venom of our own death.” (2003: 38).  He continues: “What matters just as much as its power to heal is poetry’s power to open lesions in consciousness, to upset our most precious balances, to give away (without crowing over) the darker tints in our nature…” (2003: 38).  Through poetry we become at once more serene and more quickened to all of life.


          In an April 2004 editorial in Poetry, Christian Wiman writes:


          Poetry, like all the fine arts, … is predicated on the existence of an inner life.  It assumes not only that humans have such a thing, but that it can be shared.  It assumes, moreover, that this transaction of interiors is integral not only to the life of the individual, but to the life of the culture (2004: 37)


          One of the great sustaining pleasures of poetry is the experience of a truly individual voice.  One of its paradoxes is that this experience of another’s individuality is a powerful way of discovering and confirming one’s own.  (2004: 40; emphasis in original)


… [T]he greatest power of poetry for this particular country, at this particular moment in history, may be simply this act of preserving some aspect of truly individual consciousness in a culture bent on obliterating it.  That is to say, poetry’s deepest value for our lives may consist precisely in how unlike life it is.

(2004: 40; emphasis in original)


…[W]e now live in a world that seems almost designed to eradicate the inner life.  When a real poem falls on such soil, how is it supposed to take root?  (2004: 39; emphasis in original)


Let us remember,… that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.  (2004: 42)


In an earlier editorial he wrote upon assuming editorship of Poetry, Wiman said:


The poems I respond to most deeply are those that emerge out of some passionate tension between life and language, poems in which you feel – not always in equal measure – life and language trying to be each other.  They can’t, of course. (2003: 93)


Passion, intensity, heart: is it embarrassing to claim fidelity to these things?  To want only the art that wakes you up to your life, even if such waking is pain?  (2003: 93; emphasis in original)


We all have our age’s conventions in us like a kind of disease.  (2003: 94)


Best to keep one eye on your work, the other on your life, and set about making your way through the difficult, attentive existence that is the price and reward of any deep fidelity to the forms of one’s imagination.  (2003: 94)



          Finally, I offer the words of Robert Frost, whose celebrated 1939 essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” is as fresh today as it was when it was first written.  I ask to be forgiven for excerpting it according to my own bias.


…The figure a poem makes.  It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.  The figure is the same as for love.  … It has denouement.  It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood – and indeed from the very mood. … It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad – the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.


No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.  No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.  For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. … The figure [a poems makes] is the same as for love.  Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. … (Frost 1939)



What, then, is – or should be – at the heart of poetry?   It is a willingness to surrender to a process wherein one is as much “written” as one “writes,” and discovers what one is writing in the process of writing.  Its art is the antithesis of artifice; its sentiment is the foe of sentimentality.  The heart of poetry is place where life and words meet and both are changed.





DiPiero, W.S.  (2003).  “Fat” (review essay), Poetry 83(1)October 2003: 37-50.


Frost, Robert.  (1939).  Collected Poems.  New York: Henry Holt.


Wiman, Christian. (2003).  “Editorial,” Poetry  183(2)November 2003: 93-94.


Wiman, Christian  (2004).  “Editorial,” Poetry  184(1)April 2004: 37-42.