Why Poetry? Why Pongo Poetry Project?

Why Poetry? Why Pongo Poetry Project?

By Kevin O'Rourke

Kevin O’Rourke is a member of Pongo Poetry Project’s Board of Directors.

Here’s the thing about poetry: it can stick with you–or maybe, in you—like no other form of art. For example, I’ve had the following lines from George Oppen’s poem “Route” in my head for more than twenty years:

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful
            thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity

Don’t just take my word for it; studies have shown that people tend to retain poetry better than other forms of writing. Work in Memory & Cognition found that for “prose, memory for surface details … declined over time … For poetry, memory for surface details … did not decline with increasing delay.”

There’s a reason why oral tradition—which relies on memory, and which often takes the form of poetry—is the oldest form of storytelling. What’s more, poetry tends to deal with big topics: life, death, love, hate, existence, the lot. Put another way, poetry sticks with us because it grapples with universal topics that can be hard to talk about, or think about, clearly.

Such as another line I keep coming back to, John Ashbery’s “tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,” plus poems about everything from injustice (John Murillo’s A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn) to memory and desire (At the Fishhouses, by Seattle native Paisley Rekdal). I can hardly imagine life without poetry to help me make sense of it.

Healing with Poetry

So when my friend Nicole—who is a fine poet herself—introduced me to Pongo Poetry Project, I leapt at the chance to get involved. Pongo uses poetry to facilitate healing among youth who have experienced trauma like abuse, neglect, or exposure to violence.

As a survivor of suicide, I’ve long been interested in mental health and healing, and have written about mental health both personally and professionally. I’m thrilled to contribute to Pongo’s mission and future as a member of its Board of Directors.

Though the work I do for Pongo is removed from the organization’s day-to-day work in detention centers and treatment facilities, I’m proud that my efforts—and those of my fellow board and committee members—have helped thousands of youths over the years. It’s also beyond gratifying to see so many cathartic poems emerge from Pongo’s work with youths.

Here are the first two stanzas of one such poem, “My Motivation,” which was written by a young woman at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Child Study and Treatment Center:

My motivation
is watching the cars on the highway,
imagining that one day,
I’ll be in one of them, on the way home.

We’re going to be planting an apple tree,
hoping that when I come home it will bloom.
It represents a new springing of life.
It’s like I’m starting a new life at home,
instead of at a treatment center.

To learn more about Pongo Poetry Project—including ways you can support the organization’s mission yourself—please visit the Get Involved page of our website.


Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works in communications and teaches writing. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions; he is currently working on several follow-up projects, including a book about surviving suicide. Other writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Kenyon Review, and Think Global Health, among others. Learn more at kforourke.com.

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