Why Poetry Matters

Poetry is how we say to the world, and to each other, "I am here." Some of my most beloved poets -- Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins and Naomi Shihab Nye -- talk about poetry as a way to document the world and our common experiences, to say what needs to be said in a direct, powerful and beautiful way.

After 9/11, when poetry was flowing in a steady and necessary stream across the Internet, someone asked Billy Collins why that phenomenon was happening and he said: "Because poetry tells the story of the human heart." Poems were the kind of urgent and comforting storytelling we needed then, and the kinds of stories we need every day. Poetry matters to the little girl in Philippines who is discovering who she is and why her language sounds like a song in her poem. It matters to the boy in foster care who is trying to find new ways to express his frustrations, but also his deepest dreams. It matters to Syrian refugees who are longing to hold tight to their dearest memories of home and to tell their stories of strength and resilience going forward.

Through poetry, children find freedom to share their story in a way that feels good and is true to their own deepest selves. From urban communities to the most rural areas, we are all the same humanity: we hunger for ways to express ourselves that feel the most true, and bend to our most human voices to create new shapes in the world.

Poetry matters because it is both free and deeply structured. There is a certain kind of freedom that comes from writing a poem without ending punctuation, or playing with sentence fragments, but there is also the joy that comes from operating within the constraints of poetry's unique structures: from haiku to sonnets to ballads to cinquains to odes. For a child seeking to express and share an idea, the structure of a poem provides a container, a vessel to hold onto a big idea or to generously share the most tender moments of the heart and mind.

Poetry can be a game-changer for struggling writers and language learners. Once liberated to express themselves in a way that makes sense to them, suddenly, they realize that their thoughts and feelings can make sense to others. A whole new pathway opens up and writers and readers, speakers and listeners speak the same language -- the language of human experience.

Simple language can convey big and important ideas. No one understood this better than Langston Hughes. He wrote at a time when the nation was changing before his eyes, and yet when so many of his friends and family members were struggling readers themselves. His poems, from April Rain Song "Let the rain kiss you..." to The Black Man Speaks: "I swear to the Lord/I still can't see/ Why Democracy means/ Everybody but me." spoke in a troubled time in a clear and direct way. His powerful call for a more beautiful and just world resonated with all. Someone once said: "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone." And these, our greatest poets, know this to be true.

Recently, the Syrian writer and translator Ghada Alatrash spoke about how poetry has deeply mattered to the Syrian people throughout history. Today, she is seeing an explosion of new poetry, which expresses the anguished voices of the people at a time when their country is experiencing catastrophic losses. In spite of the flames of tragedy, a poem is a glowing ember, making visible the power of hope, and the human spirit. We must not only read and watch, we are called by the poet to bring the flame back to the ember, to do what we can to help people not only to survive, but to thrive.

Let poetry matter to you, to your children, and let's together give it a chance to matter to many more children around the world. Be courageous and put your own story, what you are feeling and experiencing right now, into a poem, today. Encourage children to fall in love with poetry by reading aloud to them from the great poets whose names you know, and also the ones who are publishing now on their own, whose names will matter to us because we want to know their stories. Find a way to support children's stories, poems and voices around the world by championing their right to go to school and to learn to read and write. In this way, we can all break bread with people around the world, through their own voices and their own stories, through the vessels they build with the words they create out of the lives they live.