Every April all across the country, libraries and schools celebrate National Poetry Month. To honor this occasion, I decided to dedicate this month’s column to poetry. The Academy of American Poets established National Poetry Month in 1996 to celebrate the accomplishments of past and present American poets and to remind people of the importance poetry plays in our lives.
As a kid, I giggled at the whimsical rhymes of Shel Silverstein and memorized poems to recite aloud in class. While in college, I felt very cultured while listening to the lilting tones of the speakers at slam poetry open mic nights. Growing to be an aspiring writer as an adult, I have learned to respect and appreciate the skill it takes to create a well-constructed poem. The full range of excruciating and ecstatic human emotion is expressed through the catalog of poetry that has been handed down throughout the ages and continues to be created.
Poetry has been a part of our shared human experience for a long time. The oldest known poem is widely considered the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a heroic narrative told through epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, which dates back thousands of years. It’s no surprise that the format has endured for so long; poetry accesses some of our deepest human emotions, connecting us in a way that reaches beyond the surface.
It can be therapeutic to read and write poetry. It connects us with our thoughts and feelings, helping to communicate them with others. The format is more conducive than prose to the expression of deep emotion; it doesn’t require a lengthy explanation. The writer can touch briefly on a subject and leave the rest to the audience to interpret. During tough times — for instance, coming out of the wake of a global pandemic — poetry may offer us an outlet to express and process our individual and collective frustration, exasperation, sorrow, or grief. When you read a poem, it is as if you are peering through a window to the writer’s soul.
Reading poetry can also help to open your mind to new ideas. The creative ways language is used can be helpful for identifying and understanding one’s mental or emotional blocks. Poetry often plays with language and sound, sometimes breaking rules of normal writing or speech, which can allow us to see possibilities outside the constraints of our own thinking. This kind of playfulness may also be helpful in keeping our brains active.
When I studied poetry in school, I was usually confounded by the multitude of potential meanings found in the verses. I wanted a clear-cut singular interpretation to the text, but I have come to understand that is also its beauty. It reflects the complex and nuanced nature of life; each individual will find their own meaning in it based on their unique experience and perspective. Reading poetry requires us to think critically about the choices the author made, analyze what they are trying to convey, and think about what it means to us personally. This helps us build skills that are transferable to other aspects of our lives as well.
Poetry is hugely beneficial for helping children learn about language. Rhyme helps stretch and break words down into individual syllables making it easier for children to hear and identify them later. Becoming more familiar with words helps children to recall them more quickly when they see or hear them in the future. Books with a great rhyme scheme are some of my favorites for reading in story time. Poetry can also be a great tool for helping build vocabulary, as poetry often uses a rich variety of words. Meter helps us to understand and begin to get a sense for timing and rhythm. This helps them begin to learn the basics of music and can even help with understanding other disciplines such as mathematics or athletics.
There is so much to explore and learn about in the rich and diverse world of poetry. The library has many excellent books of poems and books about poetry in the collection, you can check some out in our catalog here. For more ways you can participate in National Poetry Month, or to learn more about what is going on in the world of poetry, visit https://poets.org/.
Another way you can dig into the format is to try reading a novel told in verse. Also sometimes called a verse novel, these are novel-length narratives told through poetry instead of prose. They have become more popular in recent years, especially in young adult fiction. These are great for any reader, but they are especially helpful for reluctant readers. Typically, the text is sparser and thus may be less visually intimidating. The readers can take it in small chunks at a time, making it more approachable than a book with longer sections or chapters. The flow of the language can also be helpful to make the reading smoother for struggling readers.
Though the verse novel may be more approachable to read than a standard novel, this does not mean they lack depth of story. On the contrary, they often address complex issues such as bullying, peer pressure, family issues or economic adversity. If you want to try it out, a few authors to get started with are Kwame Alexander, Sharon Creech, Nikki Grimes and Karen Hesse.
Poetry is also an essential part of music, so don’t forget you can check out the wide variety of music CDs in the library’s collection as well. We are always happy to help assist you in finding some great reading or listening material, so give us a call or visit our website for more info on how to get recommendations or personalized picks from library staff!
Don’t forget there are a few ways you can still get materials from the library. Place them on hold through the catalog with your library card and set them for pick-up at one of our locations during our contactless pick-up service hours or sign up to have them delivered to your home!
(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at Julia.Engel@corvallisoregon.gov or by phone at 541-929-3016.)