“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would have thus been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” ? Charles Darwin
Is poetry relevant today? Once one of the highest forms of literature, poetry appears to be struggling on the sidelines these days. Few people write poetry, it seems, and even fewer read it.
But not so fast. Did you sing along to the car radio yesterday? Or download some Prince tunes when you heard the news? Or put your child to bed with a lullaby?
Song lyrics are poems set to music. Far from being irrelevant, poetry provides the soundtrack of our lives. Our days are infused with poetic melody. We listen to music at home, in the car, at work, at the gym. Even if we don’t sing along, we recite the words in our head.
Poetry allows us to use language in ways that simply aren’t possible in everyday speech. I might say, “The sky is a neat shade of blue and there are clouds that look a bit wavy.” And I might prosaically write, “A series of wave-like clouds lap against an azure sky.” But to describe that in a poem, I have to work harder to evoke the feeling the image inspires: “Angelic robes rippling across heaven’s infinite ocean.” (ugh!?needs more work, I know.)
Poetry need not be frothy to be evocative. In the opening lines of the 1977 song “Solsbury Hill”, for example, Peter Gabriel uses the simplest words possible: “Climbing up on Solsbury Hill/I could see the city light/Wind was blowing, time stood still/Eagle flew out of the night.” Relying on rhythm and rhyme to provide the imagery, Gabriel invites the listener to join him in the experience (or nearly join?for years I thought he was saying Salisbury Hill, so I would have been in the wrong place.)
Listening to poetic song lyrics can be uplifting, but reading poetry is beneficial, too. Reading a poem requires your full attention. You’re not just reading for information, or following a narrative, but immersing yourself in the words?what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
When I took ENGL 212, Poetry and Plays, I learned to slow down and read each poem carefully. Reading aloud helped, too, because it allowed me to get the full effect of the sound of the words?just like listening to song lyrics. (The connection between poetry and song lyrics was emphasized with two music CDs, one by Leonard Cohen and the other by Loreena McKennitt, which were included in the course materials.) Although analyzing poetry doesn’t sound like fun, having to analyze how each word is a necessary building block of the overall effect contributed to my enjoyment of poetry.
Reading poetry prompted me to appreciate how writing poetry could improve my writing overall. Writing?or attempting to write?poetry allows us to play with words in ways we can’t with everyday prose. Achieving a pleasing rhythm requires hunting for the precise word or expression. During the search process, the writer learns new words or learns to use words in a new way. Vocabulary expands, and our improved ability to use language shows up in everyday writing and speech.
Reading poetry also made me realize how surrounded we are by poetry. Nursery rhymes and lullabies, greeting cards and Christmas carols, song lyrics and Shakespearean lines, even sporting chants and advertising slogans. And, of course, where would we be without the mnemonic devices that set hard-to-remember details to rhyme (I still have to sing through part of the alphabet to remember that W follows U and V.)
April is National Poetry Month. If you sang a song, sonnet, or slogan this month, chances are you love poetry?at least a little bit. Before the month is over, think about the poetry already in your life. Then expand your love: invite more poetry in by reading a few poems or maybe by writing one of your own.
Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.