Why is poetry essential for actors?




“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver


Contributed with love by Terry Knickerbocker


Poetry is essential for actors. You must read poetry constantly.


Wordplay is part of an actor’s toolbox. When the actor can live-out a word by understanding what each word means through their actions, it creates vibrancy in a scene. Speaking poetry aloud can nurture good vocal habits, develop emotion, and set a range of tones for the actor. Paying attention to details in speech is essential in character work. When I think of advice for actors on nailing a good speech, I remember this quote from Sanford Meisner in his book On Acting:


“What’s that speech about? Don’t give a lecture. Tell us in your own words about a personal experience. It’s about going into a place and feeling isolated and locked out, but having a vision that somehow you belong there and helping through your own work, to open the doors, to make the place home. Proving that it was home all the time.”

It’s not about convincing the audience that you exist; it’s about believing the character exists within yourself. The audience will ultimately believe you because of your living out a full vision truthfully. When you feel at ease with this experience so does the audience. The duty of an actor is never to stop believing in your character. If you are bored, then your audience will also be bored. Don’t bore us with fake pretend, entice us with a richness of words and actions played out with honesty.

Some of my favorite poets include:

Mary Oliver New and Selected Poems, Volumes 1 and 2

David Whyte River Flow

Jack Gilbert The Great Fires

Emily Dickenson The Complete Poems

Stanley Kunitz

William Carlos Williams

Gertrude Stein

Walt Whitman


I want to stress the essential value of poetry for all artists – because it’s so pure –
a poem gives a voice to nature itself.


A couple more of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes from the Poetry Handbook:

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.”

And this:

“What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?”

Some of my favorite bookstores in NYC:

Greenlight Bookstore
The Drama Bookshop in Manhattan



If I am not in class teaching Meisner technique you may find me meandering in a bookstore. I love them!

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