Before there was writing, before there was prose, certainly way before there were such things as 140 character “tweets” and “status updates,” there was poetry.
April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., a time to “celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture”; to read or even recite out loud poems such as Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) or Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”).
Classes in poetry aren’t the most popular with most of my students. But if analyzing metaphors in 18th-century poets isn’t your favorite activity, perhaps you still enjoy reciting the lyrics of songs or keep a few words of some poem in mind because it just says something in just the right way.
Poet Robert Pinsky has suggested that poetry evolved to “hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings and ideas rapidly and memorably.” Poetry may not help you to get a six-figure job, but composing a haiku forces you to condense your thoughts into just a few words and focus on what you mean. Four reasons that poetry can be good for us:
1) Writing poetry has helped hospital patients recovering from medical illnesses.
Shamans once chanted poems as part of religious healing rites, according to the National Association For Poetry Therapy. A 2008 documentary, Healing Words, showed how a doctor and a poet were able to help patients with serious medical conditions (including a Vietnam veteran awaiting a transplant) to write poems that helped them to recall “an essential truth about themselves — a memory from childhood or a moment of insight — and deepens their understanding of their lives and their illnesses.” The poetry writing was found to aid patients in releasing deeply private feelings, thereby playing a role in their healing process.
2) Poetry could help with depression.
Studies undertaken by arts and health organizations and agencies in the U.K. have looked at whether writing poetry could be “the new Prozac.” One study investigated whether poetry writing might increase levels of secretory immunoglobin; the secretory immune system has been called “the body’s first line against invading organisms” and also plays a role in how our moods fluctuate throughout the day. Another considered whether writing poetry could help with depression and wean people off anti-depressants.
These studies have been inconclusive, but that doesn’t mean poetry writing didn’t help. Poetry may not be a panacea for illness, but it doesn’t hurt and could be at least a non-intrusive placebo.
3) Learning poems by heart is good for your memory.
Making the effort to memorize a poem helps to “take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood,” the writer Brad Leithauser wrote in The New Yorker. While some say that memorizing poems doesn’t help with other tasks, in a day and age when we need to concoct passwords with alpha-numeric characters and some punctuation mark, and then to recall them, exercising your memory capacity by learning a poem can have its uses.
An organization called the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP) seeks to use poetry to help people those dealing with memory loss to, indeed, remember things. The APP conducts poetry workshops to help stimulate the memory of those with Alzheimer’s, via a group call-and-response session and the creation of a group poem, built from participants’ own words.
4) Writing poetry can improve your writing (and thinking).
Writing a poem means that you have to focus your thoughts and only use so many words. For these reasons, some writing teachers suggest that writing a poem (or rather poems — practice makes perfect) can help to improve your writing skills overall, even if you’re writing fiction and have no intentions of ever publishing, or trying to get, a poem published.
As poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read her poetry at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony, has said, “poetry models precise and mindful language is useful, because after all if we can’t be precise with language, how can we share ideas?” — in other words, how can we effectively communicate with each other?
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