Better Ask Somebody Else.

“Why,” I am asked, “is it so important for children to have poetry in their lives?”
Not just “Important,” but “so important,” emphasis on that “so.”

As if I knew. Is it? Is it really important for children to have poetry in their lives?
In their lives how?
Where would they put it?

I first thought of the hungry, unhoused poster-children
of causes I support, and wonder where
their poetry is. And what it is. Every day
I watch videos of them standing in line
and kneeling to receive meager meals.
Is this their poetry?

Years ago, as war was raging in Ethiopia,
I was picked up at an airport in Washington, D.C.,
by an Ethiopian cab driver. He reluctantly
answered my ignorant questions about the war,
then asked why I was in the city.
“I’m here for a poetry conference,”
I replied.
“Poetry?” he asked, pronouncing
the word very carefully. “What
is this ‘POETRY’?”
Although I tried,
I could not answer his question.

Are children finding this poetry in dusty volumes
as I found Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay
in the half-lit mahogany shelves
of the public library in Kittery Point, Maine?
Is poetry being read to them one poem a day
by a teacher like Miss Jackson in Fort Worth, Texas,
who read one poem a day to our homeroom class
from the works of our school’s namesake,
the great Paul Laurence Dunbar?
Are children embarrassed to ask questions
about poems they feel they don’t understand?
Are they afraid to pronounce unfamiliar words?
Are they encouraged, or forced, to memorize and recite?
To compete in performance?
Are they offered suggestions, and cheered on
to write their own poems?
Are their grown-ups proud of them?

What is this poetry, and why is it so important?
Because it’s a language that invites us into intimacy.
Because it’s a use of language that teaches us empathy.
Because it shows us we are selves sharing a world,
Because it moves us forward on the path of soul-building.
Because it might be what saves us.

From the March/April 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson's many books include Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor's Life; Carver: A Life in Poems; and A Wreath for Emmett Till. Her work has been recognized with a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Author Award, among others; she has also been a National Book Award finalist.

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