by Amanda Spadel
I didn’t always enjoy reading poetry the way I do now. There was a point in time when all I was interested in reading was fiction novels--especially when I first started having an interest in reading stories as a kid. Series such as Goosebumps, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Harry Potter intrigued my initial interest in reading fiction for young adults—particularly suspense and science fiction stories. But in recent years, I’ve become a frequent poetry reader too. Actually, I’ve decided that poetry holds the same meaningful impact that longer stories do, if not more.
In my opinion, the meaning in poetry can hold even more weight to young readers, especially if they don’t already avidly read. I’m not talking about introducing more traditional poems to young readers and have them relive the high school torment of figuring out a Shakespearean sonnet. Young readers should read more contemporary poetry because it’s current, most likely more relevant to their lives, and more importantly, a lot of contemporary poems seem more personal and transferable to audiences in today’s world where we are all pressed for time.
The first and simplest reason why more young people should read more contemporary poetry is because it might spark an interest in their reading habits in general. Think of all the people you know personally who have told you they don’t read. We know they actually read, but what they mean is they likely find longer works of text a bit intimidating or too time consuming to even bother with. In our meme and gif filled timelines, it’s easy to see why. Most poetry is short in terms of length, which is inviting to someone who is turned off by huge blocks of text. It’s not uncommon for poets to play around with form as well, giving the page an intriguing look that other written works cannot replicate. Poetry can get the reading habit rolling, and if it’s a doorway into the reader considering longer works of writing too, then that’s another benefit.
When poetry is introduced in public schools, students are already convinced that reading is boring and a waste of their time. It’s important that contemporary poetry is introduced along with the older works because the poems will be easier for students to follow who traditionally don’t read much—and especially do not read poetry. Thinking back to my grade school years, I was introduced to poetry formally around middle school when one of my English teachers showed us how to write a haiku. I remember it being a short lesson and after it was done, it wasn’t really mentioned again. Then of course in high school, we read Shakespeare’s plays—not too much of his poetry though. It wasn’t until early in college I remember taking an American Literature class that spent a decent amount of time covering poetry. But, in all honesty, most of that poetry was boring. If contemporary poetry was also introduced, maybe it would have stuck to me earlier on. So maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough ways contemporary poetry makes its way into our lives.
It took some serious hunting, but I found A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein on an old bookshelf in the storage room—where we keep all the old things. Flipping through now, I remember the short funny little poems and illustrations from my childhood, but I had to have this book now only because one of my parents bought it for me when I was really young. Since poetry wasn’t really taught in my school, I guess it just fell off my radar completely as a reader.
It wasn’t until I saw a video shared by Button Poetry a couple of years back that really intrigued my interest in poetry as an adult. When I followed their page, saw more content, branched out for more poetry sources, I found myself both reading more poetry and watching more performances. Hearing a really good poem might encourage someone to actively read more poetry—or at least attend more poetry slams. I’d say that’s how it happened to me. Write About Now Poetry is another good source for both slam poetry videos and poetry posts--usually relating to easily transferable issues related to personal mental health, social interactions, and unique self-expression.
Which leads me to another reason why it's so important for younger audiences to read contemporary poetry—because a lot of contemporary poetry deals with themes involving mental health awareness and personal stories involving mental health. It's no secret that younger audiences struggle with mental health including depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disorders, and dealing with their social adjustments. Young audiences have a lot they can relate to. Another common motif in contemporary poetry is self-acceptance which is another aspect of life young adults may struggle with. Poetry can be an outlet—both reading and writing.
There have already been numerous studies conducted to discover the correlations between artists and mental health. Mental health tends to decrease as creativity increases. But as artists/writers/poets, we know that creating and witnessing strong and successful art helps to ease the mind of the illness as well. Reading or even listening to a powerful poem that you can relate to your own life is a meaningful experience for a poetry reader—especially if it can create some sense of validation and understanding that is often appreciated by younger audiences. The best part about reading poetry is that it’s mostly subjective, so a reader can derive multiple meanings from one poem. Even if it’s not the intended message of the author, if the poem does something special for the reader, that’s all that matters.
With open minds, young readers can significantly benefit from reading more contemporary poetry. It needs to be introduced sooner—either in households or in schools—in order to build that sense of interest early on. And if the interest in reading sticks, well, then we have done our job.