One of the first ways people encounter poetry in some form is often through nursery rhymes. At this stage, poetry paves the way to language acquisition through word play, focusing on rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. As we grow, we leave these rhymes behind, learning to use direct, imperative language to communicate our needs and wants efficiently: I’m hungry. No. I’m leaving. The childish poems fall away with the vulnerability and play of the early years.
If we do not grow up in households that read poetry, or households that read at all, often the next time we encounter poetry is in the classroom. Poems arrive on our desks, but they are not alone. They come with conditions, and with demands. What is the poet’s intention? What are the themes of the poem? We fear the poem. The poem has secrets. The poem is an impenetrable box which we must break open, which we must flatten into an essay. We write the essays, we get our grades. We never want to read a poem again.
We fall in love, and every love song is for us. No one has been in love before, not like this. Then our hearts are broken, and we find ourselves crying at the wheel of the car when our song comes on. Everything is awful, and the words of the song have never meant so much, or hurt so badly. You find a breakup song, and another. Others have suffered, too. You are not alone; the songs tell you so. Then one day, you hear the same song, and it doesn’t even hurt.
When planning weddings, couples search for the best words for their ceremony. No one reads out a list of numbers from their income tax returns. They return to the old favourites—Shakespeare for a traditional ceremony, or perhaps Cummings for a touch of whimsy. Proverbs and Psalms in the Bible are written in verse. The elevated language of poetry marks the occasion in a way everyday speech does not.
At the ending of a life, people gather to remember the person passed from this world. They relive moments of the person’s existence: their origins, journeys, final hopes and wishes. The people who attend funerals are connected to the deceased by bonds of kinship and friendship. Elegies are often read, a ritual that gives comfort to those who hear them. Poetry can serve to speak of the unspeakable.
There are as many schools of poetry as there are poets. Poetry exists in many languages, cultures, and traditions, not just within the Western canon. The purposes of poetry are myriad—yet from the outside, by which I mean people who do not read and/or write poetry as a matter of course—poetry is often seen as a monolith, with its associated gatekeepers. For me, a working poet, poetry is simply another medium through which humankind communicates and expresses what it means to be alive.
On 20 January 2021—the Inauguration day of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Vice-President Kamala Harris—the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate of America, 22-year old Amanda Gorman, ‘a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves’, recited her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’. Gorman held the world captive for six minutes as she wove her spell of words—an anthem of resistance, a clear assessment of the recent past, and a decisive call to action. In her ending lines, she laid down the gauntlet for not just Americans, not just poets, but for all who heard and read the poem. The message: be brave, there is hope, and we must be the change we seek.
Such attention on a world stage for the power and possibility of poetry is rare. Yet poetry has existed since the beginning of language, and will continue to exist. Poetry will continue to reflect the worlds within and without, in more ways than you can imagine. Read a poem today. Read a poem every day. It is a gift waiting for you. It has always been there for you.