You Should Read More Poetry

Memory, emotion, and the effects of the written word on the human brain.

Book cover of The Lumberjacks Dove.

oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much,” wrote poet Frank O’Hara. 

In the summers, I get out of bed and read one poem from the collection I’m working on. I go to bed, and I read another poem. Part of it is just routine and the need to be taking in new words as a writer myself, but part of it runs much deeper. We, as human beings, need poetry. 

Getting the thoughts and emotions of someone other than ourselves, getting external emotions in a way that is safe and that we are in control of, is incredibly helpful when feeling, addressing, and reflecting on our own emotions. 

Poetry exists as a window and a mirror. We get to watch someone else reflecting on a beautiful night, processing a difficult event, feeling, and we feel in response. Reading poetry has been scientifically linked to relaxation; when we read a poem, we’re forcing our brain to give us some time in quiet, which can be incredibly helpful when dealing with something emotionally heavy. 

It’s also a necessity to survive the modern information superhighway. Our technology has evolved much faster than us, and as a result, we live a 24-hour news cycle that our brains were not made to comprehend. Reading poetry slows us down and gives us that vital break we need from both external news and notifications and our own thoughts. 

though it was very hard for him to admire for the roaring in his head, which was nothing / more, it turns out, than the sounds of not weeping, the sounds of sadness turned back. Nothing savage, nothing cruel or vicious, / not a bird in sight—just sadness. Which is to say, in other words, just being alive,” wrote poet Ross Gay. 

Poetry has also been scientifically linked to self reflection, which can be an extremely helpful skill to have in difficult times. Beyond our modern technology, we’re also living through a pandemic that has permanently rewired parts of our brains and taken over six million lives worldwide.

We used to be able to plan months, years ahead. I remember being younger and planning trips to Long Island to visit relatives a full season before we ever went. Covid has forced us into living day by day, second by second, and without the security of a semi-certain future, our senses of self have been shifting.

“Reading poetry helps us chill out and figure ourselves out,” wrote Gabe Bergado for MIC. “Researchers found that it stimulates the parts of the brain linked to our resting states, the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes. Those are part of a network of brain regions that are active when someone is just sitting and relaxing, and have also been linked to introspection.”

By having poetry at our disposal, we’re provided with this tool to help us make sense of ourselves in the chaos of the unstable world around us. Poetry, in a way, is an anchor in a storm. 

I exist as I am, that is enough, / If no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content,” wrote poet Walt Whitman. 

I stopped reading poetry for a long time. I don’t know if it was the stress of school, the sudden increase in night life that comes with staying in a big city, or just forgetting about it, but it slipped off my radar. I’d read poems for classes or if I came across them by chance online, but I wasn’t going through collections like I used to. 

My life was exciting and vibrant but unfocused. I was having trouble remembering things. I felt that days were going by in the blink of an eye. 

Poetry did not change my life, nor did it make a massive noticeable difference. The key word here is massive; it definitely did make a difference. Once I picked up the collection I brought abroad with me and tried to get into a more routine reading pattern, I felt like I had more time. Like I could stress less, and waste less time on things that didn’t matter.

I also have been finding it easier to remember the things I read, which makes sense. “Regions of the brain linked to memory showed more activity than the general reading network while reading poetry,” reads the MIC article. 

Reading poetry may not make a wild difference. You may not even notice it. But by making time to read a poem a day, you’re strengthening the parts of your brain linked to memory, you’re opening yourself up to self reflection, and most importantly you’re giving yourself time to just be. What poetry gives us is vital; what poetry gives us is the key to weathering the current world.

Poet Leila Chatti wrote, “I’d like to tell you how I walked last night, glad, truly glad, for the first time / in a year, to be breathing, in the cold dark, to see them. The stars, I mean. Oh hell, before / something stops me—I nearly wept on the sidewalk at the sight of them all.”