This piece is written and submitted by Dr. Angela M. Cozart.
I have to admit, I hated poetry when I was in school. I hated having to figure out what an author was saying. Why couldn’t they just come out and say what they wanted us to see and hear? I remember reading ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and being completely confounded. Understanding poetry was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without having seen what the completed picture was supposed to look like.
In college I studied William Wordsworth and Langston Hughes. For the first time, I read poetry that was easy to understand and yet beautiful. Its simplicity did not detract from the beauty of form and content. Because I didn’t feel defeated from the start, I began to read other kinds of poetry, the kind that had turned me off to poetry while in high school. I wish I had come to a greater appreciation of poetry while in K-12. I had missed out on so much. But what had I missed out on? Why should children read and learn about poetry?
Poetry helps us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can do the same with essays, short stories and novels, but poetry is life and experiences in concentrated form; it doesn’t take long to read a poem, yet an author can concentrate emotions and feelings that would take pages to convey in a novel or poem. Teenagers with angst can find relief when they read a poem to find out others have shared their own experiences. Thus, poetry can be personal and powerful, but its impact can also be felt on a national or global level.
Just how powerful and impactful is poetry in the world of politics? It is so impactful that Stalin caused Anna Akhmatova to memorize and then destroy all her personal written poems, all so Stalin could not silence her poetic voice. Like painters, writers can stir the mind, but sometimes more importantly, they can stir the heart and passions, especially when rousing people to a cause. Students can come to appreciate the power of words, how a poem can rally people to a cause; there are poems of resistance, protest, and empowerment. Certainly students should be exposed to such words and ideas.
Poetry writing empowers students and builds their confidence. Writing an essay can be daunting for some students, but when they are introduced to and encouraged to write simple poems such as acrostics, they usually eagerly embrace the challenge.
Poetry helps students to appreciate the beauty of subtlety, how so much can be said indirectly. They can come to appreciate the power and beauty of words. It can build vocabulary and encourage abstract thinking. Poetry encourages students to analyze what they are reading. It exposes them to other cultures and beliefs.
Why study poetry? Poetry empowers, arouses. Poetry helps students to put ideas and feeling on paper.
Poetry can stimulate the mind, and it can help students to get in touch with their own feelings. One year, I had a student say the following to me in a letter. “I always thought poetry was for sissies. All my life I’ve suppressed my feelings, but this class has made me change my mind. I’ve come to understand that as a male I can embrace and express my feelings.” Those words were music to my ears.
Dr. Angela M. Cozart is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Teacher Education at the College of Charleston.