Why Journalists Should Study Poetry

To be fair I don’t really consider myself a Journalist. I hope to be one when I grow up.

I have always loved poetry. Well to be honest, I didn’t really love poetry until I found the poetry that spoke to me some time in my senior year of high school. Yes, we had read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Success is counted sweetest” and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in AP English. The poems we were forced to read were mostly the domain of old, dead white people.

But then I discovered e.e. cummings. I don’t remember how. His much more modern, fuck-you-establishment-I-refuse-to-use-capitalizition-free-form poems opened up a whole new world to me. Lines like,

i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh…

spoke more to me as a hormonal teenager than an extended love letter from some guy named Alfred Proufock. As you can imagine, voluntarily carrying around a Norton Anthology of poems didn’t make me the most popular kid in high school. But it would eventually make me a better journalist.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson once said that poetry “has two outstanding characteristics. One is that it is undefinable. The other is that it is eventually unmistakable.” Poems are about experiences. Journalism is about facts. Yet both seek truth.

The poet aims to show truth rather than tell it. Consider for a moment Robert Frost’s very famous poem from 1923, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Ostensibly, this poem is about a person (it could be male or female) traveling through the woods on horseback in the middle of December as it begins to snow. The person has a long way to go before they can stop for the night. That’s a literal reading of Frost’s words. But obviously the poem is so much more than that. It’s perhaps why John F. Kennedy apparently closed many campaign events with the poem’s two final lines—taking on a whole new meaning after his assassination.

How would the tone of Frost’s poem change if descriptive text like “little horse” or “darkest evening of the year” were deleted? How would it change if it were overly descriptive? The poem, along with its meaning and effect, could change dramatically.

What’s remarkable about poetry and poets is their ability not just to use words, but savor them. Every single word is chosen for a specific meaning in a specific place to evoke specific feelings. As one of my college textbooks on the subject notes,

Poetry is carefully orchestrated… The words are chosen to interact with one another to create the maximum desired effect, whether the purpose is to capture a mood or feeling, create a vivid experience, express a point of view, narrate a story, or portray a character.

Far too often, journalism today tells rather than shows. Reduced time, reduced staff, reduced money for travel, reduced interest from our corporate overlords, and perhaps most importantly, reduced editing have all contributed to a qualitative decline in well executed and tightly written news stories.

The best journalism comes with the same meticulous care as the best poetry. The words of a lede are carefully chosen to not only convey facts but also emotion and purpose. Each shot or soundbite chosen to take a viewer on a journey. This is true not just of narrative or long form journalism but spot reporting, and dare I say it, tweeting.

As an undergrad I took creative writing. Half the semester was spent on poetry. Our famously difficult professor was notorious for returning poems covered in red ink. He simply went through and took out all the words we didn’t need. Lose this, add that. Make it tighter. Make every word count he’d tell us. I try to do that in everything I write now, even this blog post.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a tweet announcing an election night result, a spot news story about a car accident, or a long narrative piece about a heroin addict descending into a life of crime. Cut and tighten. Make every word count. Show don’t just tell.

Frost once compared poems to little pebbles, “placed where they won’t dislodge easily.” Because we find truth in the words of great poems they stick with us. It’s why I could recite the last stanza of “Ulysses” well before it made its way into a James Bond film. That pebble, ending with “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” has yet to dislodge itself from my mind.

We should take a lesson from poets. Don’t just use words, savor them. Make our essential work lodge itself in the mind of our audience. These are important times with difficult problems. We can’t afford not to make every word count.

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Journalist and Producer 🏳️‍🌈✝️

Journalist and Producer 🏳️‍🌈✝️