Like many people in our country and around the world, I watched the 2021 presidential inauguration and was absolutely enraptured by Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb”. Her performance actually gave me goosebumps. It was the perfect reminder of how powerful poetry can be when given a chance.
“We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just is”
isn’t always just-ice.”
-Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Many of us, when we think about poetry, conjure up memories of being forced to tediously study the works of long-dead white men. Byron, Wordsworth, and Whitman are all still well-known poets for a reason, but they’re not for everyone. If your introduction to poetry was slogging through Tennyson for a high school literature class, you probably wrote off the whole affair.
But our memories deceive us. If you think your introduction to poetry happened in your teens, you’re probably mistaken.
Poetry is difficult to define. It can be defined as simply as “metrical writing” (Merriam-Webster), as extensively as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts” (Dictionary.com), or as, well, poetically as “that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria).
By all of these definitions, many of our most beloved children’s picture books are a form of poetry. Meant to be read out loud, they frequently employ rhyme and rhythm, tell imaginative tales, and evoke beautiful and ofttimes magical imagery. Sure, they might not count as “elevated thoughts”, but rereading them as adults can bring out far more meaning than our young minds originally found.
“But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go—
We’ll eat you up—we love you so!’
And Max said, ‘No!’”
-Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Goodnight noises everywhere”
-Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
As you got older, chances are that you were introduced to fun poems written for children, such as those by Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky.
“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
‘I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.’”
-Shel Silverstein, “The Voice”
Poetry is all around us in our everyday lives, too. Famous lines are printed on our coffee mugs, etched into statues and monuments, quoted in the dedications of our favorite books. We regularly reference poetry in conversation whenever we call our path “the road less travelled,” ironically bemoan our thirst despite there being “water, water, everywhere,” or comfort the grieving with the sentiment “’tis better to have loved and lost”. I’d even argue that song lyrics (at least some of them) are just poetry set to music.
So this April, for National Poetry Month, I challenge you to seek out poetry that you enjoy. If you enjoy nature, check out Mary Oliver. Do you read young adult and coming-of-age stories? Try Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. If you like vivid, artistic imagery, try former poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. And if you’re just looking for a bit of nostalgia, A Pizza the Size of the Sun is where it’s at, I promise not to judge.