Health Benefit: Reading Poetry

One of my early childhood memories includes memorizing poetry, an assignment my fifth grade English teacher required of our class each week.  She assigned the poem and we, the students, took it home to memorize.  She assigned a variety of poems, like “If” by Rudyard Kipling and Psalm 23. By the end of each week, every student had to recite it aloud while our teacher placed a checkmark next to our name, indicating we had successfully completed the assignment.

This practice of learning and reciting poetry is something I’ve always remembered—and valued.  I’m sure it strengthened my ability to learn and to remember. I’m grateful that this assignment taught me about writers and poetry styles. It was a valuable part of my education.

Today science has further proven that reading literature is good for the brain, and reading poetry may be best of all.*  Reading poetry stimulates that part of the brain that is similar to our resting states, such as when we sit and look out the window (something I love to do).  Poetry can also increase our ability to be introspective, helping us to know and understand ourselves better.  This kind of self-awareness, I believe, helps us to grow as mature individuals as well.

I like poetry but I don’t read it as often as I would like.  I’m hoping that someday, perhaps in retirement, I’ll have the time, or more truthfully, make the time not only to read poetry but to live with it, integrate it, and let it speak to me.  Some of my favorite poets include Jelauddin Rumi, Ted Kooser, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, Maria Rilke, Denise Levertov.

I often quote a portion of one of Levertov’s poems when I speak to grief groups about hope.  Levertov uses an image we can all hold in our minds and hearts, especially when we journey through challenging times:

We have only begun

To imagine the fullness of life.

 How could we tire of hope?

–so much is in bud.

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* To read more about poetry’s effects on the brain, go here or to read about the positive .effects of reading literature in general, go here.

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