Journalism and poetry: Is a new romance in the air?

By Laura Grimes
Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of my last day at a large daily news organization. So it seems only fitting to reimagine a new, inspiring era of journalism … that incorporates poetry.


For more than half my life I was a journalist. At least that’s the occupation I wrote on insurance applications and medical forms. But in the beginning it just seemed like one paycheck away from my real occupation: a big liberal arts question mark.

When I was fresh out of college and looking for work I vowed I would never work for a newspaper. I hated being pressed to finish term papers, why would I subject myself to deadlines every day? But I loved the whole messy process of publishing and had ever since I walked into Mrs. Wallis’ yearbook class my junior year of high school. The pull was still strong. After college, a quick accounting of publishing job options revealed:

  1. Literary magazines, tops on my list at the time, had no paycheck.
  2. Glossy magazines meant moving to New York.
  3. Book publishing ditto.
  4. Leaving the idea of working for a large daily newspaper really appealing.

So at a once-large publishing company in Portland, Oregon, my love affair with newspapering began, slowly at first, but eventually growing into a deep passion. The job taught me to work with speed and economy.

I grew to love the discipline. The adrenaline of a deadline. The exactness of facts. Aiming for the truth. Hitting it with high standards that didn’t allow for distraction or frivolity or a word, heaven forbid, out of place.

But than I became distracted. All the hours in the day were swallowed by one family crisis after another, and I was in a frantic state of perpetual triage. At night, though, in the quiet and still of the dark, I was reminded of poetry and my life before deadlines, when time was more forgiving. Since then I have grown to love poetry again. I love the way it bends time.

Poetry comes from the night. It comes from the dawn and the twilight.

It comes from the star that sits near the haunch of the half moon, the one that’s certain from aside but stare it straight and it disappears.

Newspaper writing is focused and clear. Poetry comes from the spaces between those words and from the margins: It is the negative image of journalism. It is the personal side of my professional work, but it completes all that I do. It helps me see past the pinpoint facts to the possibilities of a bigger universe.

Poetry is also the positive composite to journalism. It’s true. It affords the same economy. The right lines don’t have words out of place. Like journalism, it has discipline, asks questions, probes depths and reveals truths.

At a time when journalism is at a critical crossroad, trying to redefine itself to stay relevant but hold true to what’s vital — providing intelligent, accurate information — I’m reminded of all poetry has to offer. It’s the four-color spectrum on top of the black and white. Sure, it has economy and discipline, but with freedom of spirit. And sure it has demanding rules, but because it’s allowed to break them all, it comes with a higher risk.

In a crisis, when it takes an unnerving critical eye to stay focused, sometimes a new answer can be found by relaxing a little and looking in a new way.

Finding poetry can be like staring at one of those 3-D posters. The eyes have to drift and see into and past the print — and beyond the abstract blots a fully formed image emerges. An optical illusion, perhaps. Or maybe something that amazingly leaps off the page.

By not looking directly or looking sideways, peripheral vision can reveal what we thought was just our imagination: a perfectly lighted star that otherwise gets glossed over by the glare of the moon.

When all seems dark, a single star can help define our place and lead to a bigger, rounder picture. Perhaps that poetic star can push journalism to new heights. Rather than giving in to the stress and despairing, it’s time to reach ever higher and settle only for the best.

Test the mettle. That’s what Mrs. Wallis put on my college recommendation letter. When I walked into her cramped office with dusty yellow newspapers piled everywhere, she immediately shoved the form I handed her into a typewriter and rapidly rat-a-tatted out an amazing work of art. Within minutes, she packed that white paper with little black letters, top to bottom, left to right, single spaced with hairline margins. Then she ripped it out and handed it to me. I read it right there. Stunned. It was clean copy, and exquisite, every word.

Newspapering needs to reach for all that it’s ever been to discover what it can be. And then tilt everything at an angle. And take a chance.

The internet creates a new frontier for journalism. It’s immediate. It’s looser. But that doesn’t mean it’s less pertinent or less demanding.

I’m talking language, which lives and breathes and changes in a heartbeat. Journalistic language has evolved breathtakingly swiftly in the past few decades. Online writing has allowed many journalists to find a voice, insisted on it, really. Funny how the digital world has helped many journalists sound more human, giving permission for the first person to creep in out of the virtual fog.

The online world touches person to person with no go-between. That’s not to be confused with face to face. It’s only human to want the touch and feel and infinite wonder that come from a beautiful story beautifully told. Really, we want each other. We want something to hold.

Good writing does that. It touches like the sun. It shines through not just an ordinary pane of glass but through a beautiful bevel and refracts into a multitude of rainbows, each with its own possibilities. Journalism intersects with poetry at the bevel, at the beginning of color.

Beauty can be deceptive, though. On the surface, prisms produce just pretty rainbows, nothing to hold. But give the process a rigor and a depth of understanding, and it moves at the speed of light.

That’s where journalism comes in. It explains how simply geometry can bend light. Mix that with poetry that can bend time and imagine the possibilities.

Journalism is clean and economical. It has clarity and precision. It writes from the head, but it also needs to write from the heart. It needs poetry.

No. I want more than poetry. I want fear. I want dance. I want music. I want drama. I want fine wine. And I want it all at once.

I want writing that comes from the gut. And when it does that, it’ll have the thrill and the danger as if it’s courting a new love.


(Excerpt from “I See Thing”)
by Laura Grimes

A tether
carefully tied
swinging around
the same distance.
That’s the short sprint
at a given time,
allowing for a math that
by degrees
and gauges positions
by all the numbers
in the world.
We know those points
past decimals
so small.
Bodies without moons
equal in every weigh
spin constantly
but always veer
a slanted tilt
that add up to exactly
then swirl out again
for another pass
never stopping.
Long past
the third dimension.
A dance.
A pull.
A wending certain synch.

Beyond imagination
of endless time,
past the click and tick and turn
of notched wheels
the bodies speed and burn
to blackness
like springs past wrenching
in velocities ever faster,
they eventually
grow closer
and collide.
A mathematical certainty
blamed on gravity.

An explosion, perhaps,
but maybe just two cogs
that slip easily together
in perfect proportion
and timed perfection,
spaced even
and spinned slow,
as they click on
like a slow exhale
of stories untold
building one after another
to an inevitable stroke
that comes down
all at once.

A math that
by degrees
and gauges positions
by all the numbers
in the world
can’t count on every orbit,
can’t measure an axis
by a simple plumb bob,
because it doesn’t see
to the very core,
past the grit and gas
to a mucous
and, surprisingly,
slippery and sticky
at the same time.
It can’t see past decimals
so small
where lines are crossed
to organisms
and unmatched.