By: Ann Lehue, MSIS, Manager, Collection Development Programs
National Poetry Month offers time for us to turn our attention to this oft-maligned section in libraries. Poetry does not have to be inaccessible and boring or difficult to read. In fact, poems sprang up as a simple way to pass along stories from generation to generation. The rhythm, the rhyme (in some cases), the alliteration, and other literary devices, along with the conciseness and repetition of poetry, made it enjoyable, memorable, and understandable for community members of all ages and abilities.
Why should all patrons have access to poetry through their libraries? Reading poetry improves literacy and writing skills, can be therapeutic and increase empathy, and can instill a love of reading.
Poetry improves vocabulary and discourages lazy writing. The nature of poetry with its stripped-down verbiage encourages finding exactly the right word, and that word is almost never “really,” “very,” “stuff,” or any other vague term that English teachers hate. Sometimes the rhythm, alliteration, or rhyme of poetry dictates a wider menu of words, so poetry readers are naturally exposed to a wider vocabulary in context, which is a powerful way to learn and remember new words and phrases. The predictability set up by the meter and rhyme helps readers to see patterns and to learn to link sounds with letters and syllables—key reading skills.
Good poetry feels “true” and invites the reader to see into the mind of others, which helps to develop empathy. Humans seem to be wired to appreciate rhythm in an emotional way, whether it is the heartbeat of a mother, the drums of war, the ecstasy of a celebratory dance, or the power of a poem. Langston Hughes writes poignantly about deep pain that onlookers might miss in “Minstrel Man”: “Because my mouth | Is wide with laughter | You do not hear | My inner cry: | Because my feet | Are gay with dancing, | You do not know | I die.” We all feel the universality in these words, and learning that others have the same experience can be strong therapy. Rhythm itself has been discovered to calm people and is a central part of therapies such as EMDR and EFT and has been used in Chinese medicine since ancient times.
Poetry can say profound things in simple ways, and the youngest of children or the oldest of adults can enjoy it, regardless of their reading levels. Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition help struggling readers of any age guess more difficult words in a way that prose cannot, and feeling success when reading is at the core of developing a love for reading—humans don’t enjoy things for very long that make us feel like failures.
What type of poetry collection is appropriate for a library? Diversity and variation that reflects everyone in the community is key. Sometimes libraries create a self-fulfilling prophecy that the poetry section is only for hard-core literature readers or even for pseudo-intellectuals to check out and pretend to read. People of all ages, demographics, and walks of life can connect to poetry if they have access to and their attention is drawn to poetry created for them through displays, readers’ advisory, and events.
A library should contain both multiple-author anthologies and single-author collections. The anthologies help introduce readers to poetry, help students fulfill reading and literary criticism assignments, and provide a resource for special occasions, such as finding an apologetic love poem for your spouse after forgetting your anniversary, or an encouraging poem for a toast at your best friend’s wedding, or a hopeful poem for your grandmother’s funeral. Single-author collections of both classic and popular authors appeal to and can build the poetry fan base. I, for instance, will fight like a Walmart Black Friday shopper to get the new Billy Collins book first. I have not used pepper spray yet (that anyone can prove), but it’s not entirely off the table.
Like every section, poetry should reflect a diverse group of authors. By including authors from different ethnic groups, races, genders, social classes, ages, viewpoints, styles, and voices, you can help everyone to feel included in the poetry section. In too many places, poetry is viewed as a wealthy, educated, mostly European endeavor, largely because U.S. literature classes tend to be English (British) literature and early American (British settler) literature. Displays of poetry, which may be the only places many patrons see poetry, should reflect all this diversity, including age. Across the country, teens participate and compete in poetry slams. When I was a teen, confessional poetry ruled as we poured all our angst out onto paper. Teens and poetry go together—they are emotional, do not usually waste words when speaking, and are obsessed with rhythm and music. How well do our collections appeal to teens?
Poetry sections should also contain a mixture of reading levels and contain humorous as well as serious collections. Just as we would not fill a fiction collection with only literary fiction, there is no rule that says poetry should be accessible to only the most educated, serious, and patient of readers. Most people don’t fall in love with poetry by starting with Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even people who love poetry and can read the most difficult of poems may feel like reading something mournful at times and something cheerful or even silly at other times.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, then, let’s look at our poetry sections, displays, recommendations, and programming and see if we are serving everyone, because poetry truly is for everyone.