“A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.”
There's a big difference between working and communicating about our work —we may excel at the first and need help with the second. Writing and talking are also two distinct competences. Some of us may find that we are much better at talking things through; for others, it is more comfortable to write things down.
Social media, email, and messaging applications have not created the need for us to say things —just like the telephone they are tools. And even if like the telephone they came with instructions, the path to understanding how to to use these tools to create opportunity goes through understanding ourselves better.
But there are things we know to be true. What we hold dear, for example. Even as there are plenty of things we don't understand. Sarah Kay writes poems to figure things out. She says, “Sometimes the only way I know how to work through something is by writing a poem.”
She combines written and spoken word in spoken-word poetry, the art of performance poetry. In it she fused the two things she loved —poetry and theater. She wrote her first spoken-word poem at 14:
The first time that I performed, the audience of teenagers hooted and hollered their sympathy, and when I came off the stage, I was shaking. I felt this tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see this giant girl in a hoodie sweatshirt emerge from the crowd. She was maybe eight feet tall and looked like she could beat me up with one hand, but instead she just nodded at me and said, "Hey, I really felt that. Thanks." And lightning struck. I was hooked.
Poetry is a powerful form of expression. In 1991 Dana Gioia, who served as the Chairman of the federal arts agency the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled Can Poetry Matter? that generated international attention.
When I met him in 2007, Gioia's translation of Eugenio Montale's Mottetti: Poems on Love (1990) peaked my interest. Montale received a Nobel-Prize for literature in 1975. His writing is about a person's place —and displacement— in the natural world, remembrance and loss, and love.
The strength of Montale's poetry is direct, intuitive, forceful existential provocation, obtained through dry synthesis, with words and verses distilled to stern minimal syllables and signs: situations, feelings, fears and concepts are evoked with precision using three, four words, two, three verses.
My favorite poem (in a translation I cannot attribute) puts into words what we might not be able to say:
Maybe one morning walking in air of dry glass,
I'll turn and see the miracle occur —
nothingness at my shoulders, the void
behind me —with a drunkard's terror.
Then, as on a screen, the usual illusion:
hills houses trees will suddenly reassemble,
but too late, and I'll quietly go my way,
with my secret, among men who don't look back.
Reading poetry is a form of meditation on the human condition. Poetry and writing help us make sense of our lives. Sarah Kay founded Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry as a literacy and empowerment tool.
They run performances and workshops to encourage people to engage in creative self-expression in schools and communities around the world, just like she did at the beginning of this talk where she received a standing ovation.