There may be no better time than right now to read and recite poems — alone or with our kids!
There are, of course, practical benefits to poetry. Reading poems enhances language skills, memorization, self-confidence, vocabulary, and the ability to productively listen. But the practical benefits are not why I teach my children poems.
Life is about so much more than practicalities. We don’t eat food only for nutrition; we gather round a table with family and friends to feast. We don’t only wear the cheapest, most functional clothing; we seek out clothes that promote the dignity of our bodies. We don’t play sports only for the physical benefits; we play because it’s fun. It’s the same with poetry. In its essence, it’s far from a practical book of science or math. As my friend Denise – another home schooler who taught her children to read poems – says, “Art makes the world more human … makes us aware of our immortality and our place in the unity of the Universe. It is our connection to people of all times who have fought, loved, dared, feared, hated, overcome, and bled like us.”
When I was growing up, I spent huge blocks of time alone in my room, drawing in a sketchbook or reading Russian novels. My father has since admitted to me that he was worried. He had no clue what career I could possibly be preparing for. To be sure, I had to keep up with learning math and science, but I showed little interest in those subjects. But he trusted that, whatever I was showing an interest in studying, even if it didn’t seem practical, it would set me on the path to happiness. And it did. As my very patient parishioners know, I regularly quote poems during my homilies. It turns out I did make use those useless skills after all.
It seems to me that the worst question we can ask of our children’s education is about its functionality, trying to figure out what further purpose it serves. It doesn’t matter if learning a poem – or playing music, or painting — isn’t career-oriented. It doesn’t really matter if it has any value beyond itself at all. We read poems because they’re like a reflection in a mirror. The closer we look, the more we see.
A life can be transformed by a poem. It’s a language of hope and possibility, each one a little drop of sun shining through a bead of water and illuminating it like a diamond. Poetry is a powerful language that speaks of the value of each and every thing, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else at all thinks it – or you – are valuable. Life isn’t valuable because of its earning potential; it’s valuable simply because it is good that we exist.
In his recent book, The Mystery of It All, poet Paul Mariani talks about how poetry can “provide a deeper way of seeing into the nature of reality …” He writes, “What at first seems random is in fact connected at some very deep cosmological, molecular, and spiritual level: that life is sacred, and that things and events and people do matter, though we may not always understand how.” This is why poetry is important.
There’s comfort in acknowledging the mystery. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even have most of the answers. Our lack of knowledge isn’t a defect, though, it’s a promise. Just around the corner, there’s a more profound revelation to be discovered, a beautiful moment lying in wait like a wildflower.
This is all on my mind right now because we’re surrounded by practicalities, many of them quite concerning. As we’re quarantined, we’re all watching the news, looking at charts, worrying about how to feed our families, how to educate our children, anxious about our jobs. I sense that many people, like me, are stressed out.
But I’m also in a little group of friends who have begun reciting poems and sending them to each other. For me, the Quarantine Soliloquies group is one of the bright spots of my day. I don’t need any more charts or statistics about disease to look at. That doesn’t help. The poems, though? They help very much. So share a bit of beauty today, because even if practicalities are darkening our days, life is so much bigger and grander than we could ever imagine.
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