I firmly believe that reading poetry daily, even if it is only one poem a day, is one of the best things you can do for your mind. For someone who considers themselves a lover of philosophy and thought to be ignorant of poetry is a great crime. Before we get started though, I’d like to ask you a question, reader. Does poetry matter?
No, poetry doesn’t matter. Neither does art, Truth, beauty, philosophy, the quest for understanding, or that TV show you really like. You can live a perfectly complete life without ever once worrying your head with poetic fluff, and I wouldn’t blame you if you chose that. I’d be a bit sad on your behalf, but hey, it’s your life and your choice, not mine.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can actually start to have a real conversation.
A Poem a Day Is Good For You: Here’s Why
I know, like many people, I don’t like being told what’s good for me, or what I should do. This makes poetry sound like broccoli, something you consume because you’re told it’s good for you. Who likes being told what’s good for them? I decide what’s good for me, damnit!
Then I ate some broccoli, and man, it was crisp. Refreshing, full of a nice rich leafy flavor, and it paired so well with the other food on my plate. And it really is good for me? Wow, broccoli is amazing. Poetry is the same way. For as much as we roll our eyes when we’re told we should do something because it’s good for us, I truly believe that reading a poem a day is a great way to improve yourself. It’s not a chore, but a delight. Now, plenty of people don’t like broccoli, and plenty don’t like poetry. That’s fine. But like broccoli, I think you need to try poetry (prepared in a variety of styles, like with broccoli) to see whether or not you really enjoy it.
There is a common view that poetry is somehow difficult, or inaccessible. Many people, even intelligent, cultured people, fear poetry. It’s scary, reading something without understanding it. The truth is, poetry does require work. That’s enough to turn a large number of people off, but not you, Refine The Mind reader. You like to work. You want to expand your mind, and broaden your horizon. It sounds like I am selling you snake oil, but when I tell you that there is no better investment of a few minutes daily for your mental well-being than to read a poem, I am being wholly serious. Let me explain.
“If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.”
Late frontman of The Doors, and poet, Jim Morrison, believes that poetry can liberate you from the limited ways you see and feel. I agree with him. Poetry, at its very best, inserts an image into your mind which becomes un-banishable, un-impeachable. It gives you new ways to experience the world and express your thoughts. It can take the mundane and transform it into something meaningful. As you chew on and digest a poem with your brain, some phrases or words, images, may become stuck, like a popcorn kernel, in your mind’s molars, forever lodged there.
For me, that image came from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall.” The poem addresses a young child, distraught at the way the leaves are falling off of the trees in fall, and introduces her to the concepts of death, ephemerality, and rebirth. One phrase in particular has stuck with me since I first read the poem a decade ago, and every fall, without fail, it enters my head with renewed vigor. “…are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?” That word, “unleaving” is forever etched into my mind. It is, to me, the most supremely accurate and evocative description of autumn imaginable. I will never be without that image, and I am glad for that.
There are countless other poetic images that will never leave my mind, but that one is chief among them. It has, like Jim Morrison wished to do with his poetry, delivered me from my limited mental vocabulary for discussing how I felt about autumn and the change of the seasons. From that image which took root in my mind, many other images have grown, and my thoughts have branched out in new directions, leading me to new poets, new ideas, and my own original thoughts. Its value to me is massive, and it’s all because one day around ten years ago, I read that poem.
Imagine now, reading a poem every day. There are plenty that you won’t like. I’m a poetry fan, and there’s plenty of the stuff that I can’t stand. This is not about liking or disliking something, though. This is about experiencing new modes of expression, new viewpoints, new ideas. Maybe it’s an old idea presented in a way that resonates with you. Maybe you’ll read something that resonates with you so negatively it upsets you and propels your mind to new places, new criticisms. No matter what you take away from a poem, it is mental work. This is healthy and good. Even in intellectual pursuits, if we are only seeking out what we like, we are not truly growing our minds in a well-rounded fashion.
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.”
I just launched Escaping the Rat Race: The Radically Honest Toolkit to Escape 9-to-5, Follow Your Bliss, and Live a Radically Free Life.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Does your life ever feel dull? Monotonous? How often do you listen to the way you talk? What words do you use most? Are words often repeated? Are all good things described as “awesome” or “great” in your lexicon? When was the last time you described a sunset with more than one or two words? “Beautiful” and “breath-taking” are all well and good, but what else can you tell me? I want to experience what you felt when you saw the orange globe of the sun slowly tuck its fierce luminescence behind the jagged, wooded edge of the far-off horizon, its rays tendriling out into the night, gradually giving way to glowing purples and star stippled navy blue.
Poetry is wealth that costs you nothing but time. All it asks of you is a little effort, and in return, it can take up residence inside your mind. We all possess poetic capacity. At its heart, poetry is the expression of more than just the words used. Mentally, we live in that realm. We live in figurative language, thrive there, and we use it daily. Poetry is another philosophy of life, a means of experiencing things that cannot be expressed otherwise. Just as the philosophic mind never stops questioning, the poetic mind never stops expressing or seeking means of expression.
Reading poetry daily is about making your life richer, and it only takes a few minutes. There is a near inexhaustible amount of poetry in the world, produced by all cultures for thousands of years. I encourage everyone to find poets that you love, and equally, to find poets which make you angry. Find poems that challenge your worldview, that expand your vocabulary, that give you news ways to express that which you have always felt but for which you lacked the words. This is the essence of poetry, and the only thing standing between you and reading some poetry daily is the effort to do it. It doesn’t matter if you understand it at first. Reading is a skill that we often neglect. So often we only read for information, even those of us actively engaged in the quest to broaden and hone our minds. I know I was (and sometimes still am) guilty of it myself. Poetry is a way of thinking which, in our increasingly busy world, is being left by the wayside. Part of that is down to the way in which we read.
Stop Reading Silently
When you read a poem, unless it is one that relies specifically on the visual nature of poetry (e. e. cumming’s poem “[l(a]” comes to mind), read it out loud. Read slowly and deliberately. Feel the shapes of the words in your mouth. Enjoy the crisp contrasts and beautiful sounds. Appreciate the way the sentences flow, the rhythms, the rhymes, the wordplay and punning that is so easy to miss when we speed through a poem with our eyes alone. Doing this, the poem will come to life in ways that you may not have ever anticipated. What is the point of language if not to speak? To sing? You are doing yourself a disservice by reading silently all the time. Words are beautiful things, and they are really only half alive when they are silent.
Will you feel silly at first? Absolutely. That’s okay. Poetry’s roots aren’t in written language anyways. It grew out of oral traditions, and it still is an oral tradition. Slam poetry lives and dies by the sound of the language and its delivery. Is Shakespeare’s St Crispian Day Speech from Henry V inspirational as text? Sure. Is it better spoken? Absolutely. Do not fear being bad at reading out loud. Chances are, it’s been a long time since you last read aloud. When was it? Can you remember? Reading silently is convenient, but even muttering a poem under your breath is better than stifling it by confining it to just the visual dimension. You need to feel it with your mouth and hear it with your ears and heart.
Do I Really Need to Read Aloud?
Yes! Reading it, even in your best mind’s voice, is only half of it. Humor me, please! The next time you encounter a poem, promise me that you will try reading it aloud. I don’t care if it’s a silly limerick or a love sonnet. Let the poem speak. Speak it yourself. We’ve become so self-conscious as a culture, and the art of reading has been an unfortunate victim in that process. Try reading poems in different ways. Read like you’re reading to a child. Read like you’re whispering into your lover’s ear. Read like you’re sending your most holy of prayers to the great beyond. Taking even five minutes in a day to do this simple thing is so constructive and positive. It’s marked a major change in my life, and I want desperately to share this with others.
“Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”
How can you possibly feel as if you are remembering a thought which you never voiced? Keats’ quote echoes that of many before him, hailing the universal and mystical qualities poetry seems to hold over our collective imaginations. Poetry has a capacity to touch us in ways we often find hard to explain. This can seem baffling to non-readers of poetry, or to people who have not yet cultivated their poetic mind. In my experience, it is absolutely true. The more one cultivates a poetic mind, the more easily one can relate and empathize with the experiences of others.
Poetry is in some ways a shared consciousness. Depending on the poem, millions of other people will have read it and found in it some Truth, beauty, or some other emotion. You are participating in that when you read. Isn’t that something? Think about that for a moment. Poems, whether they are brand new, or hundreds (or thousands!) of years old have the power to reach across cultures, across genders, across experiences, across the entire world to reach deep inside of you and make you feel as if you are remembering something essential for which you lacked the words.
“Wine is bottled poetry.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
So as to not risk taking myself too seriously, I’d like to offer a few quick bullet points as to why you should read poetry daily.
- It’s fun! Discovering new things and beautiful things is always a joy.
- It’s sexy. Who doesn’t love a poetic mind?
- It’s a great way to build up a library. Discover favorite poet, buy book, read, add to shelf, rinse, repeat.
- Sometimes poems are about colonoscopies. No, really.
- It feels good. Seriously, it does. You’ve got to trust me, there.
Wine is bottled poetry. Who doesn’t like wine? Wine’s great. Let’s get drunk on poetry a little bit every day, okay, reader? Like wine, a little bit of poetry consumed regularly is good for your health. It’ll make your mind nice and strong, and bring pleasure to you on a regular basis. I hope you find (or have already found) your “unleaving,” your own poetic totem which will forever live in your mind, entering when you least expect it. Start to live out poetry in your daily life. Experience the world in full beauty. Save “awesome” for the things which truly are. Expand your experience a tiny bit every day.
Author Bio: Christopher Hart spent the past year as an English teacher in South Korea. Born in Wallingford, CT, in the United States of America, he received his B.A. in English and Music at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He believes firmly in both education and poetry, and believes that poetry and song should be vital parts of every day life. His blog, ‘A Poem a Day’ is currently dormant while he travels and writes. His first volume of poetry, ‘Mutually Deaf’ will be available in all digital formats shortly. His blog may be found here.