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How poetry can help people get through hard times – 4 essential reads

A young Black girl stands at a lectern to recite a poem on stage.
Poetry can be a way for people to come together. Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian American writer Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” went viral across social media.

Poetry can often help people make sense of the world in difficult times. For World Poetry Day, The Conversation U.S. has gathered four articles on the power of poetry.

1. Poetry gives people a voice

In 1991, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker coined the term “Affrilachian” after attending a poetry reading that featured several Black Appalachian poets.

Amy M. Alvarez, assistant teaching professor of English at West Virginia University, and Jameka Hartley, an instructor of gender and race studies at University of Alabama, wrote on the history of how Black people in Appalachia found their voice in poetry.

“By coining the terms ‘Affrilachia’ and ‘Affrilachian,’ Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia,” they write. “Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.”

Read more: How Black poets and writers gave a voice to 'Affrilachia'

2. Comforting us in grief

After many of her loved ones died, Emily Dickinson fell into a deep depression. She secluded herself in her home and wrote nearly 2,000 poems – many of which were about grief and death. One of her most famous poems, “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” was written in the midst of the Civil War.

Dickinson’s poems resonate well during a pandemic that’s left many people in despair, wrote Matthew Redmond, a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford University.

“Dickinson’s imagery shows how keenly she would have understood what we might feel, dwarfed by a mountain of mortality that will not stop growing,” Redmond wrote. “The same anger, exhaustion and sense of futility were her constant companions in later life.”

Read more: Emily Dickinson is the unlikely hero of our time

3. Poetry can help students learn

Amanda Gorman made headlines in 2021 when, at 22, she became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Her success was an opportunity for educators to use spoken-word poetry to teach students.

Three educators – Kathleen M. Alley, associate professor of literacy at Mississippi State University; Mukoma Wa Ngugi, associate professor of literatures in English at Cornell University; and Wendy R. Williams, assistant professor of English at Arizona State University – wrote on how teaching spoken-word poetry can benefit students.

Spoken-word poetry “holds the promise of helping young people to connect with ideas as well as providing a means to deepen comprehension and develop understanding and empathy, which can then be applied to real-world situations,” wrote Alley.

Read more: Amanda Gorman's poetry shows why spoken word belongs in school

4. Poetry can helps us laugh in dark times

James Bond is known for delivering classic one-liners, especially in the face of danger.

In “Thunderball”, Bond harpoons a villain and then jokes, “I think he got the point.”

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But killer zingers like his can also be found in ancient poems. In Homer’s “The Iliad,” Polydamas spears Prothoenor in the shoulder. As Prothoenor dies, Polydamas jokingly suggests that his spear will be good tool for Prothoenor to lean on like “a staff when he descends to the underworld.”

Andrew M. McClellan, a lecturer in classics and humanities at San Diego State University, wrote about why ancient poets literally loved to add insult to injury.

“The jokes are for the audience, and it’s as close as the genre gets to breaking the fourth wall,” he wrote. “Viewers are attuned to these witticisms not simply because they are funny, but because they’re self-consciously ridiculous. They help distance the audience from the often horrific levels of violence on display.”

Read more: The ancient history of adding insult to injury

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

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