The Personal is Poetic


Words :

Abigail Clauson-Wolf 

Stories have a strange ability to connect us to people we do not know. By telling our stories and listening to others, we are able to realize a commonality within all of us, even if the contents of our stories are unrecognizably different. Poetry is one of many ways that we express our personal narrative, while exposing us to stories unlike our own.

Listening to people’s stories is a way of assuring them that we care: humbling ourselves so that we are aware of stories unlike ours, and reminding ourselves of narratives that are completely outside of our own. Poetry is an art form that relies on the subjectivity of historical accounts, and works on the assumption that the reader understands that the poetic piece details one person’s lived experience. Since the governing bodies currently refuse to uphold the core values of a democracy, it is important to find alternate routes towards embracing democracy and making sure it is kept alive for future generations. Though continuing to advocate for productive policy must always be the priority, listening to the struggles of people through a poetic lense allows for artistic expression as well as policy change in a democracy.


In Aristotle’s Poetics, he explains that which makes up a work of poetry, and differentiates this from that which he stipulates history to be. Aristotle argues that poetry is “more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”1 Aristotle views history as focused on one end: telling the truth. Conversely, poetry takes history and molds it into a story. By doing so, poetry is taking historical truths and creating a story. Poetry, in a universal capacity, makes history accessible to everyone. It is impossible to relate to every historical narrative, because they are an expression of facts, some of which we have no personal connection to. On the other hand, poetry plays on our emotions, and by doing so allows people from many different backgrounds to find some part of themselves in a poem.

When we read Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” we understand her strength and resilience. Though Angelou does not explicitly say it, we understand the nature of her courage from her employment of specific words and phrasing: “Out of the huts of history’s shame/I rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise.”2 Angelou is letting the reader in on small snippets of her life, which in turn allows us to better understand her experiences and feel her triumph along with her. The way that Angelou employs the word “huts” creates a feeling of closeness to this history, particularly a history that is generalized and misappropriated by the white narrative. When we think of a hut, we visualize a primitive shack. The use of this one word is able to incite images in our minds that further our understanding of the attitude of condescension. We see Angelou herself overturning these cages that house the dark histories that color our country, and see the strength that she exemplifies in this poem. When Angelou talks about rising above her pain, we are all able to remember our own visceral feelings of grief, and this connectivity can help us deepen our understanding of Angelou and other poets who choose to tell their stories. In this way, poetry is able to depict history in a way that allows for more people to comprehend it on an emotional level. Rote facts do not necessarily evoke emotions, but a personal account of history comes much closer to doing so.
Though history itself is a story, chronicling the events of the world, it denounces the inevitable biases that obscure it. Poetry differs from history by embracing the diversity of writers and the different perspectives that shape history. Poets openly embrace bias and let it seep into their art form. This bias is what creates dynamic, engaging poems, and it is what connects the reader to the poet.

Over 2000 years after Aristotle, Walt Whitman, though most famous for his poems, wrote a small number of essays detailing the importance of poetry in a democracy. In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman reiterates the idea that Aristotle brings up: that poetry fills in the gaps that are left the out of the reports of history, by documenting the lived experiences of those that color it. Whitman explains that people expect the poet “to indicate the path between reality and their souls,” and by doing so, poetry is able to go a step beyond history and inject morality into a historical storytelling. According to Whitman, poetry is able to appeal to people’s deepest emotions by telling the stories of their realities. He theorised that the “past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is.” History shapes the present and future, and by doing so, we rely on history and stories of the past in order to move forward. Whitman shows that successful poets use their experiences in the past to understand how things should currently be.

Both Aristotle and Whitman recognize the significance of poetry, and how the practice of poetry leads to increased engagement with, and understanding of, a wide range of experiences. Poetry shows us that there are many stories that are largely left out of the democratic process. In an interview with Colorlines poet June Jordan, she says that “poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” By reading poetry we are allowing ourselves to hear stories unlike our own, that in turn connect us through shared humanity. Poetry can help us understand the stories around us, and can push us to advocate and lobby for policies that will positively impact others, not just ourselves.

When we vote, we think about our own stories, but also the experiences of those around us. Though poetry could never take the place of important policy, it can enhance our understanding of those around us, and teach us invaluable lessons through the lyrical phrases. By informing us of others’ experiences, we are better equipped to engage with the government in ways that includes a more diverse background.

By creating poetry, absorbing poetry, and listening to poets, we are exercising the immensely important act of listening to one another. Whitman understood that our values aren’t contingent on one person, writing: “Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.” He is demonstrating the immediate need to use our words in order to challenge those in power. Poetry has the power to shed light on the inequities in our world, by describing personal experiences with injustices, and lack of representation in our democracy. Poets play an important role in this decision making process. They force us to grapple with experiences that are foreign to us, thrusting us into uncomfortable and difficult frames of thinking. This informs us of past injustices and how we may choose to live out our futures, and act in order to make sure the futures for those who aren’t us are just, equal, and devoid of past mistakes.
1. Aristotle. Trans. S.H. Butcher, “Poetics by Aristotle,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Section 1, Part IX. Accessed March 17, 2017.
2. Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.” 1978. poetryfoundation.org. Accessed April 20, 2017. (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/46446).
3. Walt Whitman, “Preface to “Leaves of Grass.” Matthews Brander, ed. Oxford University Press, 1914. (http://www.bartleby.com/39/45.html).
4. Ibid.
5. Julie Quiroz-Martinez, “Poetry is a Political Act: An interview with June Jordan” race forward, December 15, 1998. (https://www.colorlines.com/articles/poetry-political-act).
6. Whitman.