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The importance of poetic art in history

A graphic illustrating famous poets (left to right): William Shakespeare, Mohammed Moussa, Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. Poetry can be defined as an intense way to express feelings by using unique rhythm and writing conventions. ILLUSTRATED BY JERRY WEINTRAUB/THE STATESMAN

A hidden gem that Stony Brook University excels in is the arts. The Creative Writing program is ranked in New York State’s top five. The written arts, especially poetry, tend to not receive the same attention compared to other arts and STEM-related subjects, especially regarding poets’ contributions to culture, society and documenting history.

Poetry can be defined as an intense way to express ideas and feelings by using rhythm and writing conventions such as stanzas, writing styles, syntax and grammar. It can also be defined as symbolic visual art because of how unique the writing genre is. 

Poet Timothy Torkildson attributes the significance of poetry to the fact that it is “multilayered, ranging from its emotional power to its role in intellectual development and cultural preservation.” 

He discusses on LinkedIn how “poetry serves as a profound medium for human expression. It captures and conveys emotions in a way few other art forms can, offering an outlet for feelings that might otherwise remain unexpressed or misunderstood. Whether the poet expresses sorrow, joy, love, or any other human emotion, the reader is offered a visceral understanding of these feelings.” 

Alice Walker, an American novelist and short story writer, agrees with this sentiment.

“Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness,” Walker iconically wrote in one of her novels.

Time and time again, history has shown the importance of writing. Folklores, myths, poems and stories have been passed down from generations, documenting culture and history in ways that sciences and history cannot. The artistry that poets produce is one of the most innate productions of humankind and is part of understanding life.

“[Poems] are undervalued in part because, as a society, we value speed and easy access. Poetry is not part of our broadcast culture, unless you count lyrical forms like rap and popular music [which I do],” Eric Wertheimer, a professor in Stony Brook’s English department, said. 

Another example of the vast scope of influence that poetry has is the work of William Shakespeare. His widely celebrated poetry, among other written works, has allowed the English language to evolve in ways that are still being studied and celebrated today. So many of his works have become staples of media that have been translated into several languages. This has resulted in humanity being able to understand and connect to the historical periods that preceded the modern day, allowing society to be influenced by works from centuries ago. 

Another example is Langston Hughes’ poetry, which documents the struggles people of color in America still experience due to racism. 

Poetry, and many other art forms of the written word, relay insights and further prove the diversity of human existence. These works convey livelihoods and stories across traditional and nontraditional diasporas. In line with Walker’s quote, to be human is to investigate anything and everything — and poetry forces us to do so. 

The genre of poetry also amplifies voices that shed light on sensitive and underrepresented topics that expose, acknowledge and elevate complicated matters, pain and emotions. Writers and poets who discuss topics of race, gender and international experiences can share their stories and connect with others, increasing community empathy. 

For centuries, poetry has been a tool to challenge ideals and invoke change; poems have been used to comment on and critique history with the hopes of pitching a better future.

“Poetry has been a good cultural archive, a place for collective memory and storytelling. It’s particularly good for this since it’s easier to commit to memory, easier to sing and recite,” Wertheimer said. 

Mohammed Moussa, a journalist and the founder of the Gaza Poets Society, commented on poetry’s historical significance and how it can become more recognized in society and cultures. 

He said that, historically, poetry is “a call for change, inspiration, and [a] way of building society. [It is also] a means of historical documentation by keeping people from being forgotten,” Moussa said. “It is a presence. [It] can always be felt. It is the past, present, and future. Poetry is valuable in any society.”

He also said that he is noticing an uptick in youths taking an interest in poetry, particularly on social media, but he feels that more people should be engaging with poetry to the same degree that society does with other art mediums. 

“Young people and poets need to understand poetry’s importance. Give it time and listen and read. [You] cannot neglect poetry; it glorifies struggle. Protect it.”

He believes that poetry is underrated and underrepresented due to the way that people are typically exposed to it. Many people’s first and sole exposure to poetry is in school environments, where it is forced upon and presented in lessons the same way that one would teach math. This creates a distaste in younger generations for poetry — something that many students continue to express — and a disconnect between art and people. 

Moussa proposes schools teach poetry differently — perhaps how he and other like-minded poets view poetry. He believes that bringing diverse artworks into the classroom will allow students to experience poetry not as part of an assignment, but as art that is meant to be consumed and contemplated. 

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