The written exchange between John Adams and his wife Abigail are true treasures of American history. But the native New Englander, away from home for months at a time in Philadelphia and Washington trying to preserve a young republic for future generations, also wrote at length to his oldest son, John Quincy, who himself would become president several decades after his father left office.
One of my favorite passages from that exchange is this bit of advice the father gave the son; it is a simple but spot-on observation about the importance of education: “The end of study is to make you a good and useful citizen.”
Adams recognized the importance of cultivating thoughtful citizens through the study of arts and letters. “Read somewhat of the English poets every day,” the elder Adams reminded his son in another letter. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”
The reminder is especially fitting today, as teachers and students around Santa Barbara County and the country observe National Poetry Month in April.
In modern society, electronic media and digital tools make access to the world’s greatest poetry easier than ever before. These tools allow school children—and adults—the ability to discover a poem with a click of a button. There are also great digital resources that provide teachers and parents innovative things to do with and about poetry. The website poets.org recently uploaded an article entitled “30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month."
Included in this list are some obvious suggestions, like memorizing a poem or reading a poem a day for the entire month. Some suggestions encourage a degree of adventurousness, like reading a poem at an open mic night.
I like this one, which fuses an appreciation of poetry with an element of civic mindedness: “Ask your governor or mayor for a proclamation in support of National Poetry Month.”
There are also great ideas for teachers, too. “Teach This Poem” features one poem a week from an online poetry collection, which is “accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom.”
Alberto Rios’ beautiful poem “When Giving Is All I Have” imparts powerful lessons in every stanza: “You gave me what you did not have, and I gave you what I had to give,” the poet sings in the moving conclusion. “Together, we made something greater from the difference.” Lessons in collaboration, cooperation, and community are both timely and timeless, for parents, teachers, and students alike.
As we celebrate National Poetry Month, let us remember that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," as British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley famously claimed in the early 19th century. While poets might not enjoy the kind of fame that movie stars, politicians, and sports figures do, their impact on society cannot be measured.
Let us also remember that for many children, poetry has helped them grow emotionally, intellectually, and creatively. Whether it is a “poet in your pocket,” an instrument in your hand, or a canvas on an easel, it is never too early to start a life-long love of reading and creating.