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, The Washington Post talked to poets about why poetry is vital for youths.
“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, D.C.’s youth poet laureate, an honor given to a D.C.-area poet between 14 and 19.
It’s not that teens 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.”
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.
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.”
It’s not just poetry books that they are reading. 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.
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,’ ” she said. “You are your own megaphone, you’re your own microphone, and you’re putting your own voice out there.”
Write a poet
The National Poetry Foundation invites kids in grades 5 through 12 to watch videos on poets.org of award-wining 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.