April is National Poetry Month. As the Poet Laureate of Alameda, I’d like to invite you to crack open a poetry book and read one, just once, this month. Read an old favorite, like T.S. Eliot, perhaps, whose Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the finest examples of 20th Century poetry (“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…”) – or maybe watch performance poets you’ll find on YouTube, like Suli Breaks’ “Why I Hate School but Love Education,” or Savanna Brown’s “What Guys Look for in Girls.” (No, seriously, GO WATCH.)
Poetry is dangerous, not weak or sappy. Poetry is powerful. It’s spoken or written truth.
Or read this and dismiss the entire topic. Why read a poem? Why should poetry matter, anyway? Elena Aquilar, an educator from Oakland, California, says that, “Poetry promotes literacy, builds community, and fosters emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries that little else can.” And she gives five good reasons why we need poetry in our lives.
- Poetry helps us know each other and build community. I saw this in action at Island High School’s poetry slam in October, when students reading poems about their lives were uplifted by the entire school listening, appreciating and applauding each individual’s work. Their poems rocked my world.
- When read aloud, poetry is rhythm and music and sounds and beats. Babies and toddlers may not speak yet, but they hear your words and learn from you. Nursery rhymes matter – they tell stories, show playful use of words; children learn rudiments of music and math from keeping a beat in a poem.
- Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening. It’s good for children and students of all ages to practice both speaking (reading aloud or memorizing), and hearing the words of other students, or other cultures, told in poetry. Rhyming poems are easier to remember than non-rhyming poems (they’re harder to write well, too!). I read some old favorite poems with the Trinity Seniors a few months ago and the elders listening spoke the lines they remembered along with me.
- Poetry has space for those learning a new language – English or other languages. A simple haiku (three lines of 17 syllables total) is a simple glimpse into nature, and a toddler can appreciate it, a kindergartner can write it, and an English language-learner can access it. Poetry is universal. Take a listen to the bilingual students at St. Joseph Notre Dame, who publish their works in English, Spanish and French, in their annual poetry journal, Prisms.
- Poetry opens the world to us. W.B. Yeats said this about poetry: “It is blood, imagination, intellect running together…It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.” (Italics mine.) Every time you “like” a Facebook meme featuring a line from Rumi, Maya Angelou, or Basho, you’re sharing poetry. You are opening yourself to a wider imagination, to the current of creativity that flows among us, unique to humans. You set your foot into the river of human experience.
(To read more of Aguilar’s thoughts on why poetry matters, read her article online at Edutopia, “Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools.” )
But doesn’t it sound boring? Go read a poem? Yawn…Worse than algebra! Worse than memorizing dates in history! Better, then, read along with me this month as I explore the poetry of four high schools and the students writing and reveling in the spoken and written word. I’ll be posting a feature every week in the Alameda Sun for the month of April – National Poetry Month.
If poetry isn’t for you, perhaps the almost-adults who are about to step into the world will enlighten you about how poetry matters to them. You like Alameda, don’t you? These students will help shine a light on the future we all share.
And by the way, it was T.S. Eliot who said that “April is the cruelest month” (The Wasteland), but I like my way better.
Julia Park Tracey is Alameda’s Poet Laureate. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook/AlamedaPoetLaureate. If you’d like her to visit your classroom or club, email firstname.lastname@example.org.