The Power of Poetry

30
Mar
2016

By Jennifer Chauhan

For the past few months, I’ve started my day reading poetry. Each morning I awake to find a “Poem of the Day” in my inbox, sent from the Academy of American Poets or Rattle. It’s become my own form of morning meditation. Words in, breathe out. Words in, breathe out.

As I move throughout my day, I catch myself thinking about the poem. Admiring a word juxtaposition. Reflecting on a phrase. Or trying to figure out a deeper meaning, my curiosity ignited.

Reading poetry daily reminds me why I fell in love with words and writing in the first place. The excitement of playing with language and the thoughts and feelings that words, placed just right, can liberate from the writer and evoke in the reader. The moments of surprise, of unexpected discovery, of newfound understanding.

It’s inspired me to incorporate more poetry—both reading and writing—into my teaching, to see if that practice could have a similar effect on my students. I remember having read that when it comes to teaching poetry, what’s important is setting up moments where poetry can happen, where it can arrive to you.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. To start, I begin each of my classes reading a poem. I tell my students to just listen to the words and to pay attention to their own thoughts and feelings that arise. It’s been an excuse to expose them to a variety of writers in bite-size chunks—from Nikki Giovanni to Mary Oliver to U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

In the after-school program, we’ve been writing more poetry. We are honored to have Eileen Huang, a National Teen Poet and sophomore at High Tech High, and Vivian Parkin DeRosa, a spoken word poet and freshman at Communications High School, visiting weekly and leading workshops. Poetry, we’ve discovered, is perfect for middle school students because it allows them to give voice to their feelings in accessible, unrestricted ways. To our surprise, many of our students are writing about their experiences (and hardships) with love. Even more, they are sharing and listening to each other.

Others are playing with language, form, imagery and creating thought-provoking pieces. From one of our 7th grade boys, after reading a poem on grief that Eileen shared:

Rivers of rage, metals of sadness.
I lost too many people here.
They drifted into my life on a piece of paper,
making me read their stories and experiences.

Another student has written dozens of poems, exploring such themes as an absent father and the pain of growing up. She told me she only started writing poetry when we gave her permission to. That in addition to having a business career, she now wants to be a poet.

And it’s not just our younger students who have been affected. One of my adult students, a financial planner who is working on a book to help women manage their finances, just emailed me a poem she wrote inspired by a line from the Octavio Paz poemBetween Going and Coming that I had read in our memoir class. Here are a few of her lines:

I see the sunset like every day before
But totally different from any more to come
Beautifully cloaked in a veil of orange and pink
Emerging as if to tease the moon and stars …

What I’ve realized: poetry is a practice all of us could benefit from. Poetry inspires emotion, thought, self-reflection, curiosity, discovery, understanding, and empathy in surprising and powerful ways. It’s both an outlet and a connector. And it forces us to consider and reflect upon our words more than any other form of writing.

April marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture. In its honor, we invite you to practice poetry, to set up the moments where it can arrive. There are so many ways you can do this—from signing up to receive a poem a day, to sharing a favorite poem with a loved one, to writing your own. Try it for 30 days. And watch what happens.

Jennifer Chauhan is Project Write Now’s Co-Founder and Executive Director.