To be or not to be? Young poets might know the question from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from movies or television, but not from reading the Bard himself. And it might not matter.
Kids are creating poetry that matters to them. To mark National Poetry Month, KidsPost talked to several poets about why poetry is vital for young people.
“I’m seeing [poetry] not be something that is only available to you if you are taught about it in school,” said Aniyah Smith, 17, Washington’s youth poet laureate, an honor given to a Washington-area poet between the ages of 14 and 19.
It’s not that Aniyah and her peers want to ignore the works of Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe. But young people want to talk about today’s issues, such as gun violence and race relations. Speaking truth to power can come in the form of verse.
“I think that poetry is the most powerful tool currently. As a young woman of color, I am often told to be quiet. I’m often told my voice doesn’t matter,” Aniyah said. “As young people in the poetry scene, we are using our words as a protest to a country that is kind of rendering us voiceless.”
Established poets welcome this younger generation using poetry to illuminate the issues of today.
Nikki Giovanni, who began publishing poetry in the 1960s, has had poets of all ages seek her wisdom. She has written many poems about race, but Giovanni says it’s not her place to tell people what to write about.
“What I dislike is the people around my age who say things like, ‘Oh, that’s wrong,’ because we heard all of that when we were growing up — ‘Oh, y’all don’t know what you’re doing,’ ” Giovanni said.
Giovanni is often considered a living legend in the poetry world, but she sees herself as just one contributor to the form’s growth.
“I don’t know where the kids are going to go with it; [older people] will be watching where they’re taking poetry and how they’re using it — and it will always be with us,” Giovanni said. “Poetry is going to continue to find a way to fit into whatever this community is. That’s what poetry does and [what] makes it so wonderful.”
Giovanni was Alexander’s professor at Virginia Tech, and the two are close friends. Both use poetry in inventive ways to tell stories for children, and they want to make sure that kids’ concerns are taken seriously.
“Kids are smart, and in many instances, they are smarter than we think they are and more aware of what’s happening in the world — they just have a lot of questions,” Alexander said. “I think with poetry, we have the capacity to ask those questions, to do it in a way where a kid can understand it, can be able to have some more insight and ultimately can feel a little bit empowered about all the things they’ve already been thinking.”
It’s not just poetry books that are trying to answer those questions. Kids are finding poems on social media platforms such as Instagram. They also might be introduced to the idea of poetry through hip-hop or rap music.
Alexander says these are good entry points to poetry, but they won’t be as meaningful as reading the works of Giovanni or Pablo Neruda.
“Any supplementary resources that are available to excite kids or excite readers around poetry is all good,” Alexander said. “But it’s sort of like you go to an amusement park, you got cotton candy, popcorn, peanuts, games and arcades — all these things that are cool and support the amusement park — but everybody’s coming for the roller coaster.”
Aniyah strongly believes that these paths to poetry will spark more kids’ interest.
“I think it’s giving young people the opportunity to see poets that look like them. Because when you put something on Instagram, there’s no one to tell you, ‘You can’t,’ ” Aniyah said. “You are your own megaphone, you’re your own microphone, and you’re putting your own voice out there.”
Check out Washington’s youth poetry movement at Split This Rock. The organization sponsors after-school poetry clubs and a slam-poetry team.
Write a poet
The Academy of American Poets invites kids in grades five through 12 to watch videos on poets.org of award-winning poets reading their work and then write them a letter as part of the Dear Poet program. Some of the letters will be published online.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Dear Poet was a project of the Poetry Foundation. It is a project of the Academy of American Poets. The Poetry Foundation is one of the project’s sponsors. This story has been updated.