The magic of poetry

“The magic of poetry,” Morrigan McCarthy, a photo editor at the New York Times, said, “is that it jolts your mind into thinking about a subject or theme in an unexpected way.”

I spend one class period on poetry in my Feature Writing course at UNC. After reading the New York Times reflection on how editors on the national desk start their morning meetings with a poem, I can see I don’t talk poetry enough.

I use poetry to talk about images and lyricism and form, about precision and meaning and how every word counts.

“What effect has such beautiful and rhythmical writing had upon us as journalists?” writes Marc Lacey. “I believe we are more pensive every morning. I can tell by the faraway look in my colleagues’ eyes as we hear profound truths communicated sparsely and majestically. That is the goal of our journalism, too.”

I stole the title of the lecture from Elvis Costello: “Poetry is the use of words where music is heard but none is playing.”

We talk “Fog” by Carl Sandburg, a poem I read in high school and one many of my students claim not to have heard of, and “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, a writer whom all of my students have heard of. In some classes, I’ve included “Constantly Risking Absurdity #15” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and “Tell the Truth but Tell it Slant” by Emily Dickinson. And I use poems the students suggest.

Once upon a time, I started every semester with a line from Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling”: “A word after a word after a word is power.” It is the primary message I like to send writers. Now, I’m going to adapt the Times’ practice and begin classes with a poem and invite students to join in. (I’ll get a few.) It’s certainly both calming and focusing.

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