National Poetry Month is celebrated every April and reminds us that poets have an essential role in our culture and that poetry matters. Launched in 1996, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world. It’s an opportunity to celebrate such an expressive art form.
Poetry helps us to appreciate the world, as well as bring attention Poetry helps us appreciate the world and brings attention to things that need more understanding or compassion. Typically, we think of poetry as boring or nerdy but, this month allows us to change our perspectives and look to poetry as a rhythmic art of expression.
The success of Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March led to the initiation of National Poetry Month in April by the Academy of Poets. The first-ever National Poetry Month was celebrated in 1996, but the history of poetry itself goes back thousands of years.
Poetry is a form of storytelling. It used to be a popular way to share stories about history through ballads. These ballads were used to announce the news to kingdoms. An ode, a lyrical poem, serves to glorify an event or person and was used to tell stories about victories.
Other genres of poetry came forth: epic, comic ,and tragic. These paved the way for poetry to expand throughout Europe. Modern poetry includes various forms and genres from different cultures and pasts.
I was introduced to poetry when I was eight years old, by my Nana. She wrote poetry and often recited it at church and in different groups she belonged to. Nana loved writing poetry and shared that with me. She would always buy me those black and white composition books and told me I could write about anything I wanted. I found such freedom in that, as I was a shy child. I also found it a challenging to see how I could make words rhyme.
The first poem I ever read and memorized was Maya Angelou’s, Phenomenal Woman. I was probably in seventh grade, and I remember reading it over and over again. It was the way it made me feel. Her words were confident and made me feel proud. It still gives me that feeling to this day.
Poetry has always been an outlet for me; a space where I can go to lay my burdens down on the page. I have the power to create worlds, inspire, persuade, and educate. It allows me to say things, in my own way, that people will feel and be changed by it.
Phyllis Wheatley was the first Black author of a published book of poetry. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery as a child and taken to Boston, where she was bought by the Wheatley family.
If Lucy Terry Prince were living now, she would be known as a spoken word artist. She was born in Africa and then sold to Ebenezer Wells in Massachusetts. In 1746, Prince witnessed two white families attacked by Native Americans. The fight took place in an area of town known as “the Bars.” She wrote a poem entitled Bars Fight which, was considered the earliest recited poem by a Black American.
George Moses Horton made history by becoming the first Black American to publish poetry in the south. He was born on a plantation in Northampton County, North Carolina, and was always drawn to lyrics, and began composing and reciting poems for college students who paid him. He published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829. His second collection of poetry, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, was published in 1845.
These poets are important because they prepared a foundation for Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and others to be able to share their voices. In turn, they have made it possible for modern-day poets to write, recite, and publish work.
In 1993, Maya Angelou became the second poet in history to read a poem (On the Pulse of Morning) at a presidential inauguration and the first Black woman to do so. Robert Frost was the first inaugural poet in 1961.
Poetry has become universal and mainstream. From the White House to big stages like America’s Got Talent where Brandon Leake, a spoken word poet from California, won season 15. Amanda Gorman recited Chorus of the Captains during Super Bowl LV. She said, “Poetry at the Super Bowl is a feat for art & our country, because it means we’re thinking imaginatively about human connection even when we feel siloed.”
I meet people all the time that tell me they aren’t into poetry – it’s difficult to understand and all sounds the same. I know that they just haven’t found the joy yet. Maybe hearing poetry, rather than reading it, will do it. I recommend watching Jasmine Mans and Rudy Francisco on YouTube. You’ll never be the same. Find book recommendations here and visit the Academy of American Poets to sign up for their poem-a-day.
As the great Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not only a dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.