Intro to “The Necessity of Poetry”

In the early days of the journal, all of the submissions arrived in hard copy, and it was easy to recognize patterns having to do with the writer or the subject. I remember reading all of the work sent to us after the first issue debuted—picking out the pieces I liked the best, spreading them out on my living room floor (the dining room table could no longer accommodate all of the work we were getting) and suddenly realizing what linked them all: Here were poets—writing prose! What the hell is this? I thought. One of the primary reasons I had launched the journal was to give journalists and other nonfiction writers (and fiction writers) the opportunity to be creative and use literary techniques to be more evocative and cinematic. But here were poets! I was amazed—and excited.

I didn’t expect poets to play such a vital role in the emergence of creative nonfiction—until I began reading the prose that they were writing. Poetry is much closer to nonfiction than one might imagine. On the most basic level, many poems are, in essence, nonfiction—spiritual and literal truth presented in free form or verse. In addition, the skills and objectives of the best poets are the skills and objectives most vital in the writing of “fact” pieces.

For example, one of the most formidable challenges for the nonfiction writer is to learn to develop a narrow and targeted focus. Writers devote weeks, months, and sometimes years to the study and observation of different subcultures, places, and ideas. In any given piece, an essayist can tell many stories, go off on dozens of tangents, while gradually concentrating on what all of his research, ideas, and interviews mean. Poets seem consistently aware and in control—not only of the structure of essays, but also in scope and range of vision. They translate and communicate complicated ideas with compact specificity while being informative and dramatic, which is what good creative nonfiction is all about.

Issue 2 featured, among others, Adrienne Rich, Judith Kitchen, Stephen Harvey, Donald Morrill, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic. (Subsequent issues featured work by Louis Simpson, Samuel F. Pickering, Linda Pastan, and Diane Ackerman.) Simic’s essay was subsequently chosen by Robert Atwan for his esteemed and essential annual collection, Best American Essays. The piece is entitled, aptly, “The Necessity of Poetry,” even though it is much more about friends, family, music, art, and wartime than it is about poetry. But, of course, that’s what makes the prose so rich.

Lee Gutkind

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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