Why Poetry Matters…

Because Every Attic Needs a Light



When you write in prose you say what you mean. When you write in verse you say what you must. Oliver Wendel Holmes

Prose is more democratic than its cousin, poetry. Prose allows for expansion into rabbit trail territory, while poetry keeps you pretty much to the path.

Prose is poetry in sneakers. Poetry is prose in dancin’ shoes.

Both make you move, both make you want to dance, but prose is a sockhop and poetry is the prom. Both should be celebrated. Both should be exercised. Both should be studied.


Because poetry is a vehicle for beauty unlike the most elegant prose. The compactness, the images, the music of poetry invite us to experience a writer’s perspective  condensed to this unique form. What is poetry? I’ll use the description (not really a definition) provided by the Poetry Foundation:

Poetry is unique because it uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader. Sometimes poetry rhymes, but not always. I will use the words ‘poetry’ or ‘poems’ to refer to verses intended to be understood as poems, not as part of something else such as rap, song lyrics, Bible verses, or greeting card messages.

Poetry in America (via the Poetry Foundation) surveyed 1000 people, through a random digital dial (RDD) sample of adult readers with varying levels of interest in poetry. Their findings suggest something that surprised me: 94% of readers indicated they had read poetry at some point in their lives. That falls off to 15% of the potential audience who claim to have read poetry at all three life stages (child, teen, adult). Still, it was encouraging to me that a great number of folks had at least a memory of encountering poetry at some point (www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/PoetryinAmerica_summary.pdf).

So, the vast majority of readers discovered poetry in their childhood through Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, etc. But then, poetry got left behind with Pooh and the honeypot, Thing 1 and Thing 2 never came to visit, and Silverstein’s Attic went dark. The excuses for abandonment of poetry are legion. Consider this an invitation to return. If not for yourself, then for the little ones who share your space.

All three of our now-grown children inherited, through their mother, the genetic blessing of math-giftedness. All three are also artists of varying types (Rosalyn draws beautifully and is a wonderful comic actress, Gabe and Nick are both actors and writers). The common passion we all share is a love of reading. But it wasn’t always so.

When Gabe was about 7, we noticed that he wasn’t carrying around books and reading all the time like the rest of us. Even Nick, who was only 3 1/2 at the time pretended to read. If you were a Grant, you loved to read. Not Gabe. He loved being read to, but numbers, not words, were his thing. Give him a math problem and he was in heaven. So, I – being arithmetically challenged and slightly threatened by this budding math whiz of a 7-year-old – set out on a quest to help Gabe love to read.

It didn’t take long. My philosophy as a teacher has always been, “build to your strength. Find what you’re good at and build that muscle.” Gabe was good at math, but what does reading have to do with math? Poetry! Not free verse, not blank, but something tightly structured. And I thought, “Haiku!”

“Gabe,” I said. “I have a challenge for you. Let’s see if you can write some traditional Japanese Haiku!” No response.

“It has to have a total of 17 syllables” (he already knew about syllables) “spread over three lines.” Gabe’s eyes lit up.

“The first line must have 5 syllables, the second line must have 7 syllables, and the third line must have 5 syllables. The poem should be about nature or the seasons, if you want it to follow the rules of traditional Japanese Haiku. What do you…”

But Gabe was already gone. Back to his room to find a pen and a pad of paper. As a teacher (not to mention as a parent) those are the all too rare moments you dream about. Come up with some idea that your child latches onto immediately, and then turn him loose.

Since that day, Gabe has composes scores of Haiku (some of which won prizes), he has written articles, and has finished his first novel. Gabe is a writer, and a good one to boot.

I’ve read thousands of Haiku over the years. My favorite was written by my son, Gabe. The occasion was a rainy night when the moon was shining through the raindrops, which were falling on a pond. At least that was the occasion in Gabe’s imagination.


My Favorite Haiku

My Favorite Haiku

The capacity of children to embrace and express themselves poetically is reason enough to pursue this art. To read it. To memorize it. To create it. Give yourself permission to play, to write nonsense verse. Poetry doesn’t have to be “important” or “serious” to be beneficial. Don’t know where to start? You can begin with Judson Jerome’s book, The Poet’s Handbook. It will, As Amazon reminds us, “teach the basics of the modern poet’s craft: diction, imagery, metrics, verse forms, symbolism.” (http://www.amazon.com/The-Poets-Handbook-Judson-Jerome/dp/1582971366)

Read a good poem today. Read it aloud where no one can hear. Then share it.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Why Poetry Matters…

  1. Fabulous post, Reg, thank you. It warms my heart to think about the legacy of words you’ve left for your children (not to mention your students, of which I was one). Reading and writing poetry are worthwhile activities in and of themselves, but the side benefits are also impressive. The elements of vibrant verse–imagery, brevity, rhyme, etc.–will bleed over and improve business letters, speeches, PowerPoint presentations, sermons, even emails and FaceBook posts. Thanks for sharing your love of words with so many people!

    • Gary! So good to hear from you! Thanks for the kind words. I’ve just finished my new novel and it’s in my agent’s hands. I’ll have the first two chaps over the next couple of weeks. Hope you and yours are well and joyful!