During National Poetry Month 2017, the Academy of American Poets received letters from over two thousand young people—fifth through twelfth graders from more than seventy public and private schools in major cities and rural areas across twenty-eight states.
These students were participating in Dear Poet, the free, multimedia education project we designed to help teachers engage their students in poetry. To participate, young people watch videos of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors reading one of their poems aloud. (Between January and June this year’s eleven videos—featuring Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Khaled Mattawa, Marilyn Nelson, Alicia Ostriker, Alberto Ríos, Arthur Sze, and Anne Waldman—were viewed over ten thousand times.) After watching the videos and reading the poems, students write letters to the featured poet of their choice. The poets write back to select letters, and the correspondence is published on Poets.org. In the letters we received this year, many of these young people shared that, while they were initially resistant to poetry, they found themselves surprised and excited to read contemporary poems that felt important to them. (Learn more about the current Dear Poet project and how to participate.)
Michael, an eighth grader in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, wrote to Alberto Ríos, "I am not the biggest fan of poetry, but as you read 'Refugio’s Hair,' I felt like a child again, listening to a story of a captured memory. I was reluctant to complete this project at first, but hearing your poem changed my perspective of poetry."
Michael’s classmate Simran, writing to Jane Hirshfield, suggested why Dear Poet might be so engaging: "Watching you read your poem was very beautiful and as you read your poem, it changed my entire perspective on this piece of literature. I believe that when an author reads their own poem, it can change the poem entirely….I just want to thank you so much for being part of the Dear Poet project and for being willing to correspond with teens across the U.S."
Through Dear Poet’s videos and letters, young readers are able to engage with poetry in a particularly intimate and individual way. The project also introduces teachers and students to contemporary poets whose work they might not otherwise encounter and to poems addressing a wide range of topics relevant to young people today. In their letters, students often note their personal connections to a poet’s work, pointing to what in a particular poem speaks to them and why.
Colten, a ninth grader in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, responded to Arthur Sze’s “The Shapes of Leaves,” a poem that touches on deforestation and habitat loss. Colten wrote, “I’ve never read something that made me experience the situation both emotionally and critically. I think this is why your poem resonated with me so much.”
Saba, a student in Mays Landing, New Jersey, was drawn to Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem “You Can’t Put Muhammad Ali in a Poem,” which stood out to her because it celebrates “someone who made me have confidence in myself and made me love myself for who I am.” She wrote, “Being a Muslim, I always felt as if I was below others, it affected me most when I was younger.… Muhammad Ali was someone I saw who was proud of his religion.”
Linda Gregerson received over two hundred letters in response to her poem “Prodigal,” in which she addresses the subject of self-harm. Tyler, a tenth grader in Pembroke, New Hampshire, wrote, “Your poem allows anyone who reads it to know how serious this issue is. It allows people, like me, to want to help out in any possible way.” In her letter back to Tyler, Gregerson wrote, “Certainly, turning outward to help others, as you describe, is the most positive thing to be made of personal hardship.”
A twelfth grader in Berthoud, Colorado, Nina, pointed to another especially powerful role poetry can play in the lives of young people. She wrote to Jane Hirshfield, “My aunt is dying….After spending my spring break with her, I came back to school and was handed your poem, ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy’ in Senior English. I have never connected with something so much.”
In fact, more students responded to Hirshfield’s poem, a gentle reflection on the end of a life, than to any other. Their letters to her speak of grief, and comfort, and an evolving understanding of both happiness and loss. Hirshfield’s letters in response—like the other poets’ replies to letters they received—were kind, encouraging, and deeply unique. She wrote to Guadalupe, a twelfth grader in San Antonio, Texas, "One of poetry’s amazing powers is that in words new ways of feeling can pass from one person to another, between you and me, alive at the same time, and also over a thousand years and across languages and cultures."
This, too, is the power of Dear Poet, which narrows the field of poetry—often daunting to students and educators—into a single connection between a poet and a young reader, who could be anywhere, and who has the rare opportunity to write back.
This article was originally featured in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of American Poets.