Say the word poetry, and many cringe, connecting their aversion to school room experiences that required dissecting a poem for its hidden meaning. But April, which is National Poetry Month, offers an opportunity to see poetry from another angle.
When I taught high school English, I often began a poetry unit by asking the question: What is poetry? From that exercise, I received numerous creative and candid definitions. To get some students to think more positively about poetry, I would remind them how music is an accessible form of poetry that most of us appreciate.
As I traveled home from Nebraska a while ago, I listened to a country radio station to pass the time and found myself captivated by the lyrics of songs like “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” by Riley Green. I imagined teens making connections to the sentiments, especially with lines like these: “I wish high school home teams never lost / And back road drinkin' kids never got caught.”
With that song’s poetry, a writing prompt snuck into my brain. I imagined inviting a group of writers to explore what they wish for: In brainstorming ideas, think about your regrets, your losses, your yearnings for a better life. What thoughts come to mind? What do you wish for that is gone and you’d like to have back? Now think about things you value or favor—whether that be good manners or the flavor of a preferred beverage or food. What wishes are connected to those values? If certain things would no longer exist, what might those be? If new features would come into being, what might those be?
Once you have a collection of ideas, examine the structure of Riley Green’s song. An inquiry will reveal that the first stanza carries a nostalgic tone, relating things rarely seen in contemporary times but missed and wished for. The next few stanzas catalogs favorites and yearnings, with that list culminating in the grand finale, the heart of the poem’s purpose: I wish Grandpas never died. Following that thematic line, there is a brief return to the past, but then the lyrics skip all over in stream of consciousness fashion.
Consider a similar arrangement or create your own organizational plan: The first stanza might reveal some far-fetched yet sincere fantasies. The second might enumerate new things while the third might share what wouldn’t be. The fourth might change somewhat negative things into positive ones. And your ending might be a variation on your most powerful wish.
You have had to listen to, learn, and follow rules for most of your life. Now you have the chance to consider your own desires and wants and what it would be like to wish into being a more ideal universe or to invite readers to think more deeply. Have fun redesigning, altering, adding, omitting, and creating!
Other songs have equal potential, like “That’s How Country Boys Roll,” a song co-written and recorded by American country music artist Billy Currington. Similar to a definition poem, the song essentially describes how to be a country boy. Writers could craft imitations, defining how to be a wrestler, a sculptor, a mechanic, or a cowgirl--whatever persona about which they know a great deal.
Luke Bryan’s "We Rode in Trucks" is another song ripe for imitation. It is reminiscent of where I come from/where I grew up stories; Scotty McCreery’s "In Between" reminded me of writing self-definition or How to Be pieces; and “Noise” (2016) by Kenny Chesney would pair beautifully with Tony Hoagland’s poem “America” (2003).
Both Chesney and Hoagland raise social consciousness with their commentary on contemporary American society. Writers might compare and contrast how consumerism and noise distract us from society’s ills and from what really matters. Using material things and other distractions, we not only drown out the suffering of others--of those who might need our help--but we insulate ourselves from their cries. Inundated with too much information, we neglect the impoverished, the needy, and the voiceless with both literal and figurative noise.
With so many different messages shouting, Chesney and Hoagland push back on the notions of being told what to think and what to buy and how to act. Once we’re aware of the noise, we might be more mindful of what really matters: listening empathically, reflecting, communicating emotionally, and interacting more harmoniously.
Speaking in rhythms and connecting sound to sense, poetry pares away superfluous language and presents life in intimate or shocking ways. It layers meaning and offers fresh or radical perspectives. Inviting both an artistic and an intellectual experience, poetry allows the reader to savor sounds and to ruminate about meanings. During this National Poetry Month, my wish for you is that you look to poetry as a model for writing and as a teacher of style. With its rich imagery that values voice and story, poetry enables us to talk about life with fresh, new vision.