For those who missed it, October 17th was National Black Poetry Day, a day where Americans can presumably celebrate their favorite black poets like Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, or Maya Angelou. This is not to be confused with National Poetry Day celebrated on October 1st in the U.K., World Poetry Day on March 21st, or National Poetry Month for all of April.
It would be easy enough to joke about such a day for its obvious virtue signaling and its pitiful attempt to encourage reading poetry, but the joke isn’t funny anymore. Despite the many days and months celebrating poetry, a shrinking number of people ever bother with it. Moreover, while everyone has been laughing at these lame attempts to popularize poetry, it has gradually been dropped from English curricula at all levels. And society is all the worse for it.
Far from being some form of therapy or euphoric experience (thank you very much, Dead Poets Society), reading and writing poetry is actually an intense linguistic discipline. It forces a person to read and reread slowly and actively analyze language. Whereas an informational essay or a short story is meant to be read and understood quickly, a poem is designed to contain multiple levels of meaning that require a much higher degree of circumspection and sensitivity.
This isn’t to say that poetry doesn’t sometimes excite feelings. It can do this, but usually because something deep in the poem resonates with something deep inside the reader. There is nothing necessarily magical in the rhythm, meter, or rhyme of poetry that possesses an unsuspecting listener or reader (as Socrates suggested). However, these conventional characteristics of verse can help amplify some of the deeper ideas of a poem and trigger an emotional response.
For most of American history, nearly all members of society had some experience with reading and reciting poetry. Not only did this provide a common cultural basis on which people could connect with one another, it also gave them a way to go further in their vision of things. Matthew Anderson discusses this idea in a brilliant essay in which he states: “When young people are given poetry, then, the poetry itself, through its very operation, teaches them that things have meaning.” A person trained in poetry can look beyond the physical and literal in reality and perceive the ideas and relationships underneath.
The majority of Americans in the past could be confronted with various experiences—in nature, politics, culture, or religion—and make some sense of them. They could handle abstractions, complexity, and ambiguity more comfortably. They could look beyond the immediate and material. Feelings and ideas had more weight because they had more meaning, whereas physical sensations could be overcome.
In other words, Americans were not so shallow as they are today. They could see value in things like religion, family, patriotism, freedom, truth, love, nature, life, and death. And this wasn’t dependent on one’s class or station of life but on their exposure to verse, be it the sonnets of Shakespeare, the fireside poems of Henry Longfellow, or the Psalms in the King James Bible. It made them more mature and better equipped to cope with the world.
Contrast that with current American adults who, while more formally educated, struggle with profundity. They can process more, but they analyze less. Hence, they prefer simpler logic in their arguments, more spectacle in their entertainment, and more shock value in their art. They are far less mature than their forefathers and would rather choose to escape reality through their screens than actually understand it.
This is shown in the special kind of illiteracy that afflicts most young Americans. As Mark Bauerlein discusses in his essay “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?,” most students can only read a text if it’s simple and straightforward, but they struggle when the text becomes more multifaceted and complicated. Yes, they may read and write more than students in the past, as rhetoric professor Andrea Lunsford contends, but so much of it is surface level and thoughtless.
Beyond the limits that a poetry-free education imposes on individuals are the limits on communities. Because the connections between citizens, neighbors, and relatives are immaterial, their strength relies on the members’ ability to transcend the material world. Without this ability, relationships and identity are tied to proximity, utility, and appearance. Communities inevitably dissolve because their members lose the capacity to recognize the deeper bonds that hold the community together.
This is what leads to cultural decay and increased social polarization. A whole generation that’s “too dumb for complex texts” but smart enough for basic literacy becomes susceptible to propaganda and memes. They internalize so many slogans and facile arguments, never realizing that they could be part of a narrative. They fall into believing crude stereotypes of the other side, never considering that human beings defy these oversimplifications.
In light of schools and digital technology producing generations of knowledge-glutted yet intellectually flat Americans, the first step to reversing the decline is recovering the practice of reading poetry. And the way to do that is to teach it as a means of analysis, reflection, and evaluation (otherwise known as critical thinking skills).
This methodical process of reading a poem is more akin to solving a math problem than skimming a newspaper article. It involves a word-by-word, line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza review, where one takes apart and puts together the whole composition, carefully recreating in the imagination its details, tones, and movement. This process leads the reader or listener to that deeper level of meaning, which can often be that uniquely satisfying experience for which poetry is known.
A poem is not some verbalized form of pure emotion as progressive educators tend to make it, nor is it some untouchable work of art that demands complete and utter reverence as conservative educators tend to make it. Sure, it often includes both these aspects, but it is more than this. It is a complex yet concise piece of text that is both logical and expressive. A good poem is compact, coherent, and clean; a bad poem is flabby, unclear, and messy. For reference, compare the tight poignant poem of Robert Frost for President Kennedy’s inauguration with the rambling, boring inaugural poem of Amanda Gorman for President Biden’s inauguration.
Eventually, the skills of reading poetry would transfer to other intellectual disciplines and help students develop into independent, deeper thinkers in general—which, once upon a time, was the whole point of a liberal education. In this way, poetry (yes, poetry) could be a powerful tool to reform the culture, restore community life, and empower the individual.
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