Why Read Poetry?

If you, like Bas Bleu’s reviewers, were an English major in college, chances are good you owned at least one poetry anthology the size of a large brick. Some of us still have one, lugging it from dorm to apartment to house as time passed and our personal libraries grew. But how many of us crack it open on a regular basis, poring over the tissue-thin pages to soak up the words of William Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Rumi, Pablo Neruda, e. e. Cummings, Anne Sexton, and Audre Lorde? And how many of us count World Poetry Day among our favorite holidays?

Celebrated annually on March 21, World Poetry Day was created by UNESCO in 1999 “to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and the other arts…so that the art of poetry will no longer be considered an outdated form of art, but one which enables society as a whole to regain and assert its identity.” A worthy goal, to be sure, but probably not at the forefront of most readers’ minds each time we encounter Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” or W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and feel our hearts begin to pound just a little bit harder. So why read poetry?

To Revel in Language
In an August 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, Molly Worthen made the case for returning to the “unfashionable” habit of memorizing poetry, arguing that “all of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble.” Describing the twenty-first century as “a literary wasteland” is probably overkill, but it’s true that our modern digital age—seemingly dominated by texts, tweets, and sound bites—sometimes can feel unconcerned with thoughtful, deliberate language. Poetry can refocus our attention, even more than novels and other prose, by reconditioning us to concentrate on every single word, and the rhythm created when they are joined together just so.

To Guide Reluctant Readers
Many readers balk at poetry, perhaps because they’re intimidated by the format, haunted by an unpleasant school experience, or worried they just won’t “get it.” But those readers often like to read other things: novels, newspapers, magazines, etc. Award-winning author Jason Reynolds, whose searing young-adult novel Long Way Down is written in narrative verse, argues that poetry is actually a terrific “gateway” tool for those who struggle with reading overall, reluctant readers who may be overwhelmed by the magnitude of pages packed with prose:

Poetry has the ability to create entire moments with just a few choice words. The spacing and line breaks create rhythm, a helpful musicality, a natural flow. The separate stanzas aid in perpetuating a kind of incremental reading, one small chunk at a time.

And the white space, for an intimidated reader, adds breathability to a seemingly suffocating task.

To Help Us Cope
When times get tough—for us or for those we care about—it can be difficult to find the right words to capture what we’re feeling, to convey what we want to say, or to remind us that we will survive. In these situations, poetry can be a (figurative) life saver. That was the idea behind How Lovely the Ruins, a poetry collection compiled by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda after they witnessed friends and family sharing poetry with one another during the turbulent months of 2016 and 2017. Unsure what to say to a friend wrestling with despair? Denise Levertov’s “For the New Year, 1981” offers the beautiful gift of “a small grain of hope.” Feeling overwhelmed by life? Let William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” inspire you as it inspired Nelson Mandela during his long imprisonment.

To Emphasize Our Common Humanity
The folks at UNESCO said it well: “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.” Poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote, “Poems are the handbooks for human decency and understanding. Poets hold water in their cupped hands and run back from the well because someone is parched and thirsting.” Marie Howe, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets declared, “The great poetry I love holds the mystery of being alive.” Whether written in English, Persian, Mandarin, or Ancient Greek, in 2018, 1818, or 8th century B.C., poetry captures the love, grief, passion, joy, fury, beauty, despair, and faith that exemplify the human experience.

If you’re feeling inspired to inject a little more poetry in your life, we have the perfect occasion: April is National Poetry Month in the United States! No need to set aside your favorite prose reading to make room for poetry; just try one of our suggestions:

  • Read a poem a day, every day, for 30 days (Websites like poets.org and poetryfoundation.org make it easy!)
  • Select a favorite poem and spend the month memorizing it. Better yet, encourage your bookish friends or other members of your household to do the same. At the end of April, host a poetry reading.
  • Begin a poetry journal, jotting down poems or quotations from poems as you would collect your favorite quotations from novels or from the Bible. Use colored flags, paper clips, or markers to organize them by theme, so you can find just the right words when you need them later.
  • Support working poets by attending a poetry reading at your local library, bookstore, or college.
  • Purchase a volume of poems, either by a single poet or an anthology. Now, read it.
  • Write your own poetry. It’s okay to start small, with a haiku, or even a funny limerick!

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4 thoughts on “Why Read Poetry?

  1. Great suggestions! I always look forward to National Poetry Month, often using quotes from favorite poems and including poems in letters I send during April. I do this randomly throughout the year, but deliberately in April.

  2. I’ve never been a poetry reader, just for the reasons you’ve listed. But lately, friends have been sharing Mary Oliver & Billy Collins poems with me. Perhaps if I had started with these, poetry wouldn’t have given me palpitations when I had to read it. I recently shared Collins’s poem about 3 blind mice with my 10 year old granddaughter, hoping to break the no-poetry cycle.

    • Billy Collins is a terrific choice, as is Mary Oliver. Emily Dickinson is also a good “bridge,” her poems insightful and intelligent…but brief and to the point. Good luck to you!

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