Why Poetry Matters

I wrote this in 2010 for my first ever celebration of National Poetry Month, as much to convince myself of the importance of poetry in our lives as to convince you, my readers. If I convince you or you don't need convincing, scroll down for links to some really great resources for poetry - for kids and adults - and ways to play with it.

Why Poetry Matters is actually the name of a very thorough, academic book by Jay Parini that I started reading a month or so ago when I got the idea to hop on board the National Poetry Month train and feature poetry on my blog for the whole month of April. I wanted to challenge myself and read the kind of texts I read in college so that I could give my readers a really solid reason for why they should read poetry to their children and for themselves. After becoming an art school drop-out, I went on to study literature, poetry specifically. I even wrote a 100 page thesis on the last book of poetry written by a famous American poet who shall remain nameless (I'm sure you can guess who - I was a middle class, white college student who loved popular culture and was too timid to study the likes of Adrienne Rich or Elizabeth Bishop.)

But, the book starts off with Plato and Aristotle. From there it becomes pretty dense. Which was intimidating to me and also reminded me of why people don't read poetry. I think that poetry is intimidating to most people and useless to the rest. Yes, music lyrics can be considered poetic, but rarely do they generate the imagery of a poem alone on a page. I wanted to be able to come up with a really good, convincing reason for you all to read poetry to your children and encourage them to read and write their own. Writing poetry is like drawing for little kids - they do it with zeal and lack of self-consciousness for years until someone or something suppresses those forms of expression for them. The problem was, by the time I graduated from college I had read, written about and written so much poetry, unpacked so many metaphors and decoded so many stanzas that I was sick, sick sick of poetry. However, I still listen with one ear every evening when The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor comes on the radio and he reads a poem. And sometimes I am even inspired to pick up and old book and read a few lines. And, of course, I read poetry to my kids now and then. But how can I convince the non-reader of poetry why it's important if I myself have ambivalent feelings about it?

I thought about this often while I waked my dogs and this is what I came up with:

Above all else, poetry can inspire a love of words and language and connection with others. Poems are meant to be shared, some out loud, some in silence. Poems connect us or make us feel connected. But, a poem can also be like eating a bag of potato chips or watching a commercial on TV - not necessarily nourishing or inspiring, but sometimes tasty and entertaining. Not all poetry has to be a complex gourmet meal, a Russian novel or a foreign film. It can be short and sweet and funny. Most kid's poetry is. Think of the great Shel Silverstein, who, admittedly, has a very nice subversive streak. And Jack Prelutsky, another children's poet with a long shelf life, and also served as the first Children's Poet Laureate. Then there is the wonderful Mary Ann Hoberman, also with a very long writing life and also the second Children's Poet Laureate (look for a review of current Children's Poet Laureate J Patrick Lewis'sWorld Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You've Never Heard Of on April 4th - which happens to be World Rat Day) who recently expressed this thought in an interview and passed it on to share here,

"Above all poetry is pleasure. I dislike it when a four-line poem of mine is in a teachers' manual and there are three pages on how to use it across the curriculum and it's analyzed to death. That's not what poetry is for. It's for joy!"

I couldn't agree more. I think that readers are intimidated by poetry because it can be mysterious and complex and benefits from analyzing. But I also think that we shouldn't shy away from those more profound poems either. These poems can be windows and doors to new thoughts and ideas. Much of the poetry written for children is bright, cheerful and shiny. Happily read and easily digested. However, there is also a lot of poetry for children that does give more pause for thought. There is poetry that is like a warm, ripe raspberry bursting in your mouth. There are poems that, after reading, leave you feeling like you have lifted a curtain and glimpsed another world. There are poems that MAKE YOU THINK. But in a good way, not the intimidating, "what does this really mean?"way. Hopefully, I have picked some of those to share with you over the course of this month. And, I know I have picked some of the bright, shiny poems that we all love to read as well. As Elizabeth Hague Sword, editor of A Child's Anthology of Poetry writes at the end of her introduction, "I hope this book opens "magic casements" for everyone who reads these poems. Whether a child's interest lies in a poem's words, story, rhythm or rhyme, poetry can foster a lifelong love of the language. This is a gift beyond measure." I couldn't agree more!

Below is a chunk from am essay at POETS.org that I hope you will find inspiring if you feel like you need more signposts on the poetry path. I have also included a link to another great piece from their site titled, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poetry by Bill Zavatsky. I hope you will read and write poems with your children this month and maybe even share them with us at books4yourkids.com! I've left some spots open at the end of our poem-a-day month in case anyone wants to share. Accompanying artwork and photos welcome!!

Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children

"Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do." said W. H. Auden

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside--a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. There are several crucial components which apply equally to many fields of knowledge: natural affinity, family, school, and community.
Often the first of these opportunities is the influence of family. How many of us can't remember a song that our parents sung, a book or a poem that was read to us countless times, or a favorite bedtime story? At that intersection of love and language is poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to "remember the dignity of daily affirmation, whatever one does--the mother speaking to the child is also a poem."

After the home comes the classroom, a frequent stumbling block for poetry. Any subject--even school itself--can be characterized as "liver and onions" by a student who isn't turned on to the excitement of learning. Although many teachers were raised to believe that poetry was an obscure, inaccessible, and unpalatable art, just as many understand its intrinsic value, but want guidance on how to approach it in class: recipes for poetry.

Finally, there is the world around us. Adrienne Rich noted: "Poetry reflects on the quality of life, on us as we are in process on this earth, in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities." It's hard to overestimate the importance of community to poetry. Once a love for poetry has been established, and some understanding has been acquired of the art, we need to have the opportunity to read and share and respond to poetry in new ways.

The above image was created for National Poetry Month, 2013 and is sponsored by The Academy of American Poets. Their website, POETS.org, is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in dipping a toe into the poetry stream or jumping in and getting very wet. They also have a wonderful section For Educators which has essays on teaching, a resource center and and an excerpt from the master Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook, What's Right or Wrong with Poetry. You might also want to visit Poetry Foundation. Both sites has collections of poetry for children (and adults) that you can browse, as well as audio and video clips.

about your sorrows, 
your wishes, 
your passing thoughts, 
your belief in anything beautiful.

Rainer Maria Rilke
From: Letters to a Young Poet

If you read all the way to the bottom of this piece, THANKS! And thanks for loving words!

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