April is National Poetry Month.
Often, when people are confronted with poetry, they grimace and grumble about how confusing and nonsensical it can be. As a high school English teacher and avid poetry fan, I’ve dealt with poetry opposition more times than I can count.
Despite its infamy, there is a multitude of values and benefits in the practices of writing and reading poetry, as well as a number of ways in which supposed poetry-opposers engage with poetry on a positive and regular basis!
To begin, nearly every mom ends up singing nursery rhymes to their children. Nursery rhymes are considered important for early language acquisition and speech development, as well as the development of auditory skills like sound discrimination. The verses of nursery rhymes demonstrate the musicality of words using the rhyming and rhythmic patterns of poetry!
Furthermore, even many children’s books engage in the poetic qualities of writing: Consider the rhyming and/or rhythmic natures of popular children’s stories like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont, and The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin, as well as any Dr. Seuss, Llama Lama, and Shel Silverstein story. Babies and small children enjoy the musicality of these stories.
More universally applicable is the recognition of many beloved music artists as poets! Notably, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (Nobelprize.org). John Lennon also published two poetry collections: In His Own Write in 1964 and A Spaniard in the Works in 1965.
Moreover, Lennon’s songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, is considered a poet for his ability to “chronicle the world around him and the human condition” (Atkins). In 2001, McCartney self-published Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999, a collection of his well-known lyrics intermixed with previously unseen, privately written poems.
Professor Howard Rambsy, a Southern Illinois University professor, actually teaches a course on rap lyrics as poetry: “There are always good lines in rap, clever wordplay that brings various ideas together in a way that is both eloquent and relevant. But the ones that stand out are those who can weave the ideas into a story” (Wheeler). Tupac Shakur is a prime example of this. In 1995 Shakur said, “It is my opinion that I started to rap when I was writing poetry…Rap is poetry, to me” (Atkins).
This perspective is further demonstrated by Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Jewel, Common, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, John Legend, DMX, Matisyahu, and so many other musical artists who have been featured on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry performing poetry readings- also known as slam poetry or spoken word poetry.
Although poetry can become more complicated and convoluted as we grow older, there are still many benefits in reading and writing poetry- no matter how ‘bad’ it may be.
To begin, poetry can help develop empathy! According to the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry in America” study, the most significant benefit from reading poetry was “understanding- of the world, the self, and others” (Coleman). People who read poetry have been found to be more sociable than those who don’t.
In response to this information, many medical and professional entities are beginning to add poetry into their curriculum. Having an empathetic doctor is certainly appreciated by patients!
Additionally, reading and writing poetry has been proven to enhance creative problem solving and critical thinking skills. These are beneficial in all sorts of professional settings, especially where “self-monitoring” strategies, “imaginative solutions”, and “efficacy” are needed (Coleman).
In a more general sense, “writing poetry can be a valuable component of leadership development” by creating more empathetic and imaginative individuals (Coleman).
As Jackson Pollock’s headstone reads, “Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saying”.
A handful of poets that children generally enjoy: Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, ee cummings, and William Carlos Williams.
- Atkins, Jamie. “Musicians Who Are Poets: 12 Game-Changing Lyrical Masters.” udiscovermusic.com, 21 March 2021, <https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/musicians-who-are-poets-lyrics/>
- Coleman, John. “The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals.” Harvard Business Review, 2012
- Housden, Roger. “Why Poetry Is Necessary.” huffpost.com, 2011
- The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2021. Sun. 11 Apr 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2016/summary/>
- Wheeler, Brian. “Can song lyrics ever be poetry?” BBC News, bbc.com, Washington, DC, 14 October 2016. <https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37637797>