Poetry, a Language of Its Own

Keys of a typewriter

Western Oregon University linguistics Professor David Hargreaves has noticed every known culture has a specialized language that is distinct from our everyday language. 

Hargreaves said this language is used in songs, folktales, stories, myths, mystic rituals, funeral laments and magic spells.

“At the heart of this specialized language is the attention to language itself, rhythm, rhyme and alliteration, metaphor and symbolic meaning,” he said. “It’s all poetry.”

Western Oregon University linguistics Professor David Hargreaves said poetry is a specialized language.

In celebration of April being National Poetry Month, Hargreaves along with WOU literature and writing Professor Henry Hughes shared their reflections on the allure of poetry.  

Hargreaves said many people are intimidated or don’t understand poetry. He feels that may be caused by the person not finding a poem or poet who speaks to them.

“I started getting serious about poetry when I realized that there are many, different ways to turn the voices in my head into words on a page, and I don’t have to follow some formula,” Hargreaves said.

Hughes said poetry appeals to the best readers and the worst scoundrels.

“Poetry is the exquisite, refined, crude, sober, drunk dance of language,” Hughes said. “It’s what we can do with words. It’s dancing. Everyone knows dancing is good for you.”


Poetry is an art of social distancing

A person with glasses
Western Oregon University literature and writing Professor Henry Hughes shared his reflections on poetry.

Hughes said the pandemic has nudged him outside more to garden, fish and birdwatch. He dedicates his mornings to writing poetry.

“Writing is typically a solitary act and most poetry begins with social distancing,” he said. “A lot of poets work in isolation. When the poem is finished, you can email it to a friend, post it on social media or submit it to e-zine.”

Hughes said Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets in world literature, spent most of her time at her home, where she wrote 1,800 poems that she shared with family members and friends through letters.

“She would have adapted easily to this crisis,” Hughes added.


Advice to aspiring poets

Hargreaves recommends aspiring poets to read as much poetry as possible from different styles, cultures and diverse backgrounds.

“They also need to write every day or as close to every day as possible,” he said. “Just transcribe the running dialog in your head if necessary. Everyone except perhaps a Buddhist monk has a constant hum of voices and impressions popping into consciousness. Start writing it down.”

Hughes tells his students to burn through their clichés and abstractions to expose a sharp image, a real scene or some authentic speech.

“Start writing and take a risk,” Hughes said. “Don’t be afraid to say something raw and honest. We often hide behind words instead of saying what we really think and feel. It’s hard. But writing is one way to break through that facade.”


A poem by Henry Hughes –

Least Sandpiper

A sandpiper at the beach
Western Oregon University celebrates National Poetry Month.

Least, maybe,

but a whole flock is a big idea, turning tight

to whim and weather

and the delicious

green rind

of the bay. 

Probe and pick, peep and eat, 

they alight beside

us mucky clammers

shucked by the soft company. 

Then up-flock—

white bellies, black backs, white, black, white—

like so much, so quickly


and out

of our lives.

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