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Bozelko column: Poetry essential to effective journalism

Chandra Bozelko
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Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
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Poems have been everywhere for the past few weeks. BBC reporters became bards in April and shared the poems that buoyed them while investigating COVID-19. NPR is seeking poems to commemorate and illuminate the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

The literary genre that normally glories in its inutility is having a moment.

It makes sense; poetry and pandemics go together. Throughout history, global epidemics were memorialized in verse. Homer’s poems described an Alphavirus that killed the Achaeans. Thucydides reported the plague in Athens through verse so well that scholars have been more interested in piecing together what the infectious agent was than studying the politics of the Peloponnesian War.

When the Black Death swept through Wales, families of wealthy decedents hired poets to eulogize them. In Medieval England, an entire literary genre developed called the “plague epic,” which was designed for when “individuals endure overwhelming affliction together.” Poets will document the wrath of COVID-19.

Even when the health crisis ends, we must keep the poetic momentum going if we want to continue to share new ideas and make them matter.

I’ve been credibly accused of being a poet; I plead no contest to it. I wrote and published a book of poems when I was in prison. I know exactly how confinement and disease unleash creative impulses.

But I don’t think it’s just infection-fearing isolation or annual awareness months that are making poems more relevant. Poetry book sales have been up in the UK for the past year or so and Americans are reading it more, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey comparing readership in 2012 and 2017. Before the novel coronavirus existed more of it appeared in the news - not as the subject of the daily bulletins but as reportage and commentary.

Since 2016, Poets Reading the News has run like a traditional news site with sections dedicated to politics, culture, health and sports, but all of the news is relayed in poems. The Trump Poems publishes rhyming verse on the president’s follies; with the frequency of Trump’s trip-ups, The Trump Poems sometimes reports daily.

Last year, the New York Times’ Opinion page ran a set of silly haikus about the presidential primary debates because there were “too many candidates to use full sentences.” USA TODAY commissioned a poem to commemorate the anniversary of the El Paso shooting. In recent years, the Los Angeles Times has solicited opinion poems twice.

These are remnants of a stronger tradition of using poetry in the news. Poetry was ubiquitous in 19th century U.S. newspapers. Less so after, even though news editors can opt to receive selected verse every week through the American Life In Poetry Project, from former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. When American Life in Poetry started in 2005, editorial gatekeepers seemed more enthusiastic, but the tightening of media space and time likely deprioritized the metered lines. The project has lasted though; the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, a South Dakota newspaper, still runs the poems weekly.

There’s a reason why using poetry as a form of news reporting works. Figurative speech has an effect only when the listener - or reader - realizes that it deviates from a literary norm. A poem stutter-steps in normal daily paces to attract attention.

Poetry has more value than its disruption; it stimulates different thoughts. The editor of the national desk of the New York Times recently wrote that he starts his morning meetings with a poem because, “it jolts your mind into thinking about a subject or theme in an unexpected way.” Former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren hired a poet as “director of surrogates and strategic communications” likely because lyrical language stimulates the brain’s reward system, according to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Researchers found that the simple act of reading verse can even cause a physiological reaction like chills. It’s one way of electrifying the electorate.

Because people can access conceptual metaphors more easily when reading a poem, poetry has more power to change minds than argument or facts, linguistic research has shown. Reading the prose of news copy doesn’t always reconcile us to it.

To commemorate the El Paso mass shooting, the USA TODAY opinion page could have published any number of op-eds from gun experts, shooting victims or biostatisticians to make the case of why the carnage happened and what we can do about it.

What could another op-ed about mass gun violence have achieved that the thousands before it didn’t? Rhetoric brings no reckoning, at least not anymore.

It’s good news that poems have more appeal now than they have before. Poetry’s presence in the nation’s media outlets shouldn’t recede when the pandemic is over. In a post-truth world, it may be one of our last hopes.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.