I recently read Nick Flynn's book The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands and it is a perfect demonstration of my point. The book focuses heavily on the issues surrounding torture and its use by our government. This is a hot button topic and one most of us have read things about or watched things about. So, why read a poetry book about it? Well, because it adds a new layer to the discussion. Flynn takes the information and filters it and moves it around, so that we can see it from a different perspective.
The book is not preachy. It is not some talking head on TV. It is not a news story. It is personal and gets you inside the issue in a way that other forms cannot.
The heart of the book is a series of seven poems in the voices of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Flynn was actually present when the testimonies were taken from these people and he provides the full testimonies in the back of the book, which gives you an interesting insight into his writing process. The poems are clipped short lines that capture the fear and confusion of the detainees. The poems are a new way into the story and are backed by facts and real life experiences, which gives them power.
The book falls very easily into documentary poetry, which is something I've been exploring for the last year both in my reading and in my own writing. I'm intrigued by the idea of taking something very real and telling the story or exploring a complicated current issue through poetry.
Poetry gives the writer freedom to do things that wouldn't work in all other forms. You are not completely bound by "truth" telling and you can add in the details that wouldn't make it in a 30 second news sound bite. Poetry becomes a lens in which we can take the familiar and make it new. I highly recommend Flynn's book and encourage you to think about how you process the word and if poetry lends a hand.