Why do we read poetry?

By Jasmine Xie, Ridge HS, Basking Ridge, N.J.

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In a new generation of grungy coffee house hipsters, poetry has quickly devolved into a misunderstood art form commonly associated with angsty teenagers and beret-wearing creeps. Ask a class of adolescents whether or not they are looking forward to their poetry unit in English class and one is sure to be greeted with a chorus of rather unpoetic objections.

Nowadays, rhymes are passed over and underappreciated, no longer appealing to the contemporary ear. The frenzied rhythms and obscure symbolism are incessantly viewed as burdens to decipher. Poetry — where the suspense is subtle, the humor hidden amongst daunting layers of dense diction, and the emotion smothered by meticulous analysis — is indeed an intimidating genre to love. Sadly enough, poetry is inevitably becoming obsolete.

Whereas a few decades ago, people could still afford the leisure to sit down and comb through cryptic lines, we are now desperate to turbo-charge everything. Why pore over painstaking rhymes when a television screen evokes just as many emotions? As an avid poetry lover, this strikes me as unsettling, to say the least. Mainstream media is slowly but surely beginning to devalue quality poetic literature, and needless to say, it has dealt quite a blow to the educational and emotional benefits of poetry as well.

The common misconception is that poetry is just a frivolity in a language arts class. It is often dismissed as something without real educational value. Yet what many ignore is the fact that poetry employs a variety of literary devices such as imagery, symbolism, and rhythmic structure to create a richer piece of literature. And while some complain about the complexity of it all, writer and poet Jeanette Winterson explains, “A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

Poetry has had a history almost as long as human civilization — from the ancient Hindu Veda scriptures to the Odyssey and Iliad, it has been a universal medium for self-expression. As Daanyal Farooqi ’17 puts it, “Poetry lets you write how you want to write, without needing to follow rules.”

The beauty about poetry is how there is never just one way to interpret a piece, nor is there ever any need to dissect or overanalyze.”

Poetry itself is a loosely defined genre of writing, ranging from intricate epics to rap lyrics. It allows the artist to tap into his or her creative minds and ignore the inhibitions of standardized writing. Furthermore, the message is in the eyes of the beholder. The beauty about poetry is how there is never just one way to interpret a piece, nor is there ever any need to dissect or overanalyze. Rather, the words often resonate within each individual in varied and unique ways. There is hardly ever a need to adhere to grammatical rules or any other mechanical restrictions. The more raw, the better.

Benjamin Zhou ’16 describes how “poetry is a great way to express abstract ideas creatively, as it gives the writer a chance to take risks that are frowned upon in traditional essay-writing.” Without the constraints of any set requirements, poems can range from the 220,000 verse “Mahabharata,” to something as simple and meaningful as Muhammad Ali’s “Me, We.” It has proven to be one of the most primal mediums of individual expression, defying the test of time with its universal appeal.

Yet what is it about poetry that strikes such a chord? Much like how a painting utilizes shadows and lights to create an image worthy of inciting desired reactions from an audience, poetry is a painting strewn across lines of rhetoric. Every word is a brushstroke, laid down with the sole purpose of creating something beautiful. Whether it contributes to a clever rhyme scheme or refines the overall piece with vibrant imagery, every word of truly accomplished verses evokes the empathy of the reader — an effect few other types of literature are able to achieve.

Ashley Yang ‘17 explains how “you can’t really give an essay the same ‘rhythm’ that you can give a poem. I feel like it’s that rhythm mixed with some ingenious wordplay or rhyme scheme that makes poems so memorable.” Perhaps it is the moving syllables that easily roll over one’s tongue, the rich memories a well-written piece can rekindle, or even the satisfaction of breaking down the symbolism immersed within the lines, that make poetry an exceedingly popular genre of literature. Either way, it is a mode of communication, certainly not limited to coffeehouse-dwelling hipsters or tormented teens.

Aria Dandawate ‘16 articulates how “poetry has many layers of dimension — of which each dimension corresponds to a layer of understanding that resonates with people.”

Assuming that everybody will suddenly become poetry fanatics simply because of some meager call to action would be wishful thinking. Even if society will never be able to appreciate poetry the way it did decades ago, we could at least strive towards slowing down our materialistically turbo-charged world. Rather than skimming through a Wikipedia summary, read a book to full fruition. Instead of settling for tabloids, try picking up some classics. Little steps lead to great strides when it comes to revitalizing our appreciation for quality literature, because as Walt Whitman once said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.”