The Ethics of Poetry


When I first began writing poetry in the late 1980s, my soul was wracked with every form of scurvy—even though I didn’t know it. I considered myself successful. I was married to my high school sweetheart, had four children, a large house, had traveled to four continents and was a millionaire on paper.

When I began seriously writing poetry, something happened—the poems started mirroring back the truth about my life. For the next fifteen years, I kept going, acting the same, while my marriage fell in shambles, my children became distant, beauty disappeared from my life, and I sought solace in alcohol. My favorite place, Montana, was just a dream of the past, someplace I had left over two decades ago. My successful life was a con. The poems were telling it all.

In 1995, life began to shine a light on the dark places, just as the poems did. I had a choice. I could run away and keep my feelings hidden, or I could wade on in and experience all my feelings and pain. I decided on the latter. Since then I have divorced. I have also had to come face to face with my mother’s suicide, children who didn’t know me, and a new love who has to deal with a changing man.

Poetry helped me put down raw feelings that produced tremendous relief and clarity.

But poetry is not Newtonian. It is not static or the same for everyone. It does not follow a formula. Poetry follows the new physics—its meaning is affected by the reader. What is true in a poem for me may not be the same for you. With your participation, you influence a poem’s interpretation, thus changing the meaning.

That’s what I mean by the ethics of poetry. The poem changes with every individual. So in and of itself, poetry is ethics, causing us to study the general nature of morals and of specific moral choices just by holding up a mirror.