Poetry to the (Young) People

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In the December 3, 2017 issue of the New York Times Book Review, I read these words from David Orr’s “On Poetry” column: “Poetry, as everyone knows, is unpopular.” The first sentence in an article about children’s poetry, Orr goes on to state that poetry is so unpopular that critics need to “acknowledge that fact up front.”

In the same issue of The New York Times, the Travel section has a front-page story about Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, the “father of Spanish Modernism,” a poet who has streets named after him in Mexico, Panama, El Salvador and Honduras. His childhood home sits on a street in the village of Ciudad Dario (renamed after him). At the end of the article, a man named Immanuel asks the story’s writer, Tim Neville, “if you ask a couple expecting a child, ‘Will it be a boy or a girl?’ they might say ‘A poet.’”

I’ve taught poetry to children, teens and young adults. The unpopularity of poetry doesn’t seem to be an issue with them. Children embrace poetry, joyfully ignorant of their elders’ opinions on the form, while teens find solace in shaping the powerful, confusing emotions of adolescence into poems. As for young adults, I gave a reading just last week, and the room was packed to overflowing with people in their early-to-mid twenties, each eager for a chance at the open mike, where they shared their poems about heartbreak, depression, stress, and anxiety. There’s no easy way to state this: young people are suffering, and poetry is a vital and important outlet for them.

I agree with David Orr that poetry is poorly understood, existing “in the shadow of fiction and music.” Its benefits are unquestionable, however. Educators and parents know this, but for every statement supporting the teaching of poetry to children, there’s a stupid and insulting depiction of a poet, such as the recent TV ad featuring the “voice of a generation,” a wimpy guy who tries to get out of paying for his share of a family gift by writing everyone a poem. The siblings in the ad accept their poems as if they’d been handed smelly gym socks.

Consider the difference between that ad and the hopes of the parents in Nicaragua. I imagine that a country where a night clerk proclaims Dario “everything to us” would be less discouraging towards poetry. We know that as children grow up, they internalize society’s attitude towards poetry. As Orr puts it, “we become wise enough to think less of it” and “put away childish things.” (At least, in America we do.)

William Stafford once said, “Everyone is born a poet – a person discovering the way words sound and work, caring and delighting in words. I just kept on doing what everyone starts out doing. The real question is: Why did other people stop?”

Why indeed.

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