Why we need poetry to slow us down

For MacArthur fellow Ellen Bryant Voigt, nature has always served as an inspiration for her poetry. She speaks about her love for natural beauty and need for solitude, as well as poetry’s gift for slowing us down.

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    Whether it is the vibrant colors of autumn leaves, or the smell of crisp mountain air, nature has inspired poets for centuries, including one of this year's MacArthur grant winners.


    Ellen Bryant Voigt takes us on a journey through her poetry and the countryside that serves as her muse. My name is Ellen Bryant Voigt. I'm a poet and a teacher. I live in rural Vermont. I have been here since 1969.

    When I look back over all the poems that I have written, I notice a couple of concerns or obsessions that kept recurring. And one of them has to do with the relationship between the individual soul and the collective, however you want to define collective. We might define it as family. You can define that as small town, the world, the natural world.

    And very often, that individual soul is in conflict with the larger one. And that, I think, I can trace back to coming from lots and lots of relatives close by in a small area, a small town that knew all of your business.


    (LAUGHTER) "If you have been, let's say, a glass-half-empty kind of girl, you wake to the chorus of geese overhead, forlorn, for something has softened their nasal voices, their ugly aggression. On the ground, they're worse than chickens. But flying, one leader falling back, another moving up to pierce the wind. No one in charge or every one in charge, in flight, each limited goose adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds. Do they mean together to duplicate the cloud?"

    I have a great interest in the rhythms of the natural world. I try to observe it. And then I try to come to some understanding that I didn't have before. Poetry allowed me to observe it, and then to try to find the language that is precise enough for the complexities around that world.

    I think I have always looked for a high degree of solitude. Music was a wonderful haven for me as a child. It was a place that — where I could find that solitude and find something I was passionate about. Music, to my mind, is a crucial part of all poems, the rhythm of it, the rhythm of the line, the long vowel, the short vowel.

    If I can hear a line that is intriguing and is interesting rhythmically, then I can go follow it toward my 50 to 100 drafts, which is about how long it takes me to do a poem.


    "One minute, a slender pine indistinguishable from the others, the next, its trunk horizontal, still green, the jagged stump a nest for the flickers. One minute, high wind and rain, the skies lit up, the next, a few bright winking stars, the lashing of the brook. One minute, an exaltation in the apple trees, the shadblow trees, the next, white trash on the ground, new birds, or the same birds crowding the feeder."

    To write poems, I have to remind myself sometimes to go out into the world. I love the natural beauty. I love living in the country. I love the solitude. But to only that, to live on the mountaintop, I think, wouldn't be good for poems.

    I think that poetry has become more visible and more a part of the fabric of the culture than it's often referred to. More books of poetry are being published now than ever before. I think that there's a great hunger for that.

    It's — we get a lot of information. We're bombarded with information. But I think, especially in this country, there are very few ways in which we can process any of that or that we can think hard about that. We need to slow down in order to think hard about it. And the poem will slow us down. It will slow us down.

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