Does poetry make us human?
By Ben Lerner
We were taught at an early age that we are all poets simply by virtue of being human. Our ability to write poems is therefore in some sense the measure of our humanity. At least that's what we were taught in Topeka: we all have feelings inside us (where are they located, exactly?); poetry is the purest expression (the way an orange expresses juice?) of this inner domain. Since language is the stuff of the social, and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood. "You're a poet and you don't even know it," Mr. X used to tell us in second grade; he would utter this irritating little refrain whenever we said something that happened to rhyme. I think the jokey cliché betrays a real belief about the universality of poetry: some kids take piano lessons, some kids study tap dance, but we don't say every kid is a pianist or dancer. You're a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as a "you" at all — is to be endowed with poetic capacity.
If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry.
Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.