Poetry Is The Original Social Media

Earlier this year, during a going-away party for two of our interns, I don’t remember how but the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky came up in conversation and it became readily apparent that no one was familiar with the poem.

I, of course, was appalled. So I found it online and started reading only to be confronted with odd looks.

Why, Dave, are you reading nonsense?
It’s not nonsense. It’s the poem Jaberwocky; it’s a nonsense poem.
So you should know it. You should know poetry,
I said.
Why do I need to know POetry?!?
Because it will help your career. It will make you better at what you do.

It was clear I was convincing no one.

You, gentle reader, have heard me rant about the benefits of the study of literature for communications professionals. “Read Hemingway,” I’ve said; “study poetry!

I’ve been meaning to expand on this argument for some time. It’s been percolating for a while but now it is ready to be served.

Poetry, I contend, is the original social media.

Poetry as social media begins with the oral tradition, where knowledge was shared through space and time via oral poetry. Poetry throughout the ages consists in large part as an ongoing conversation, a term we hear readily applied to the social Web.

In the chapter on poetry from his book The Great Ideas, Mortimer J. Adler begins:

The spirit in which the great poets have read their predecessors differs remarkably from the attitude toward the past which prevails in other fields. The philosophers and scientists frequently feel assured that they can improve upon their predecessors. The poets, for the most part, wish only t do as well. Virgil’s admiration for Homer; Dante’s accolade to Virgil; Milton’s praise of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as “the three tragic poets unequall’d yet by any”; the tributes which Cervantes pays to the poets of antiquity–these testify that there is no battle between the modern and the ancient books of poetry…even those writers whom we call most “modern”–in terms of experimenting with new styles–offer their innovations as steps in the evolution of the written word, or as dialogues with writers in the great conversation. [Emphasis mine.]

One of the most famous poems of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is rife with references to poets past, many of which are alluded to and two pointed to directly. The poem is prefaced by a passage from Dante’s Inferno, the poem’s protagonist references Shakespeare, claiming: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”.

But for the purposes of strategic communications, the study of poetry is important beyond its historic and cultural role.

Five Reasons Poetry Is Important To Strategic Communications

1) The study of poetry requires you to deconstruct and analyze poems to decipher their meaning. That discipline helps to build your analytic and critical thinking skills, two qualities that are essential to possess if you want to thrive in our field.

2) Poetry is the most concise of the language arts; every word must work. So the study and practice of poetry helps you think and write efficiently and concisely. Concise messages become increasingly more important as information proliferates and the devices and technologies through which we receive that information diversify. See my Three Words rule.

3) Poetry is creative writing, so the practice of writing poetry helps develop and improve one’s creativity, another trait of great communication professionals.

4) Poetry is meant to be read aloud. By developing the practice of reading aloud, you force yourself to pay attention to the tone of your language, how it will be heard by its recipient. Reading poetry will help you develop a good ear.

5) Finally, poetry is evocative. It conjures up images without directly stating what you want to say. Consider the following passage from the aforementioned Prufrock:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

If you imagined a cat while reading that, you get my point. The ability to understand imagery–how it works and how to evoke it–becomes ever more important as the consumption of online video continues to explode. Effective communication through film relies heavily on imagery, even more so for the short form video found on the Web.

The following is an interview with one of my favorite contemporary poets, Jorie Graham, in which she discusses some of the topics I’ve just touched upon, especially the connection between poetry and film:

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